The
Newton
Letter

John Banville
(David R. Godine)
You remember Gothic novels --- those 800 pagers with storms and falling trees and ancient creaking houses and ancient creaky scary people. Then someone relatively normal --- someone like you or me --- would arrive in this musty, timeless world, and, sooner or later, there would be a revelatory horror that would bring about a climax of sorts, until we would escape, somewhat the worse for wear. There was always a general befuddlement as to exactly how much danger this world really represented.

The Newton Letter is a mutant of that form, for instead of needing 200,000 words and 800 pages to accomplish the dark deed, Banville has managed to shrink the tale down to 12,000 words and less than 100 pages.

Our hero scholar --- he's writing a book about Isaac Newton --- arrives in Fern House, in Ireland, and rents a cottage. The main house is occupied by the Lawless family. Lawless. Get the picture?

There's the drunk Edward, married to ætherial Charlotte, with an adopted niece named Ottilie ought-to-lie and the strange child Michael who likes hiding here and there and spying on people. We can't quite figure out who he belongs to, and how Edward got into the family, and why Ottilie is such a hot-pants. In general, they are all Charles Addams types, and there's much heavenly thunder and storming, thrashing sycamores and strange noises from the big house, with its "smashed fanlight over the door."

It's the kind of a place "where you picture a mad step-daughter locked up in the attic," says the author --- who then proceeds to show us a generally mad family who are not locked up in the attic, but roaming around dreamily (or drunk), saying cryptic things to our narrator. Since this is not the 1830s or 1890s but the 1960s or 70s, they have all the modern vices: Edward ("something wrong with his stomach") is drinking himself to death, Charlotte is taking too much Librium, and Otta-lie is a laconic sex-nut who promptly seduces the narrator, who then falls in love with Charlotte. Get it?

Banville's writing is up to the occlusive task he has set for himself. He's especially good with quick philosophical bolts. This, on what is happening to him at "Ferns:"

    The future had ceased to exist. I drifted, lolling like a Dead Sea swimmer, lapped round by a warm blue soup of timelessness.

He can also cook up impressive portraits of his characters in a very few words. This is one of the visitors to Ferns, a woman improbably named "Bunny:"

    Her skirt was severely cut, and the padded shoulders of her jacket sloped upward, like a pair of trim little wings. An impossible pillbox hat was pinned at an angle to her tight yellow curls. It was hard to tell if her outfit were the latest thing, or so old-fashioned that its time had come round again, but it gave her an antiquated look that was oddly sinister. Her mouth was carefully outlined with vermilion glaze, and looked as if a small tropical insect had settled on her face.

It's hard to figure out exactly what is going on, but the verbal fireworks make up for the literary and mental obfuscations. Newton figures heavily; viz, he sought a means of explaining the nature of the ailment, if ailment it be, which has afflicted me this summer past. The letter seemed to me now to lie at the centre of my work, perhaps Newton's too. Banville then goes on to make up a totally fictional letter from Newton, describing his encounters "with tradesmen, the sellers and the makers of things.

    They would seem to have something to tell me; not of their trades, nor even of how they conduct their lives; nothing, I believe, in words. They are, if you will understand it, themselves the things they might tell.

Get it?

Whatever else, The Newton Letter is good, albeit misty reading in a Henry Jamesian sort of way; the dialogue is something else again, rather like Pinter, or even Beckett --- and is especially delicious when Our Hero decides to tell vague Charlotte of his love for her: "Tell her something, tell her a fact, a fragment from the big world, a coloured stone, a bit of clouded green glass. Young men of the Ipo tribe in the Amazon basin pledge themselves with the nail parings of their ancestors."

    I put my hands on her shoulders, and a hot shock zipped along my nerves, as if it were of her very being, and "Charlotte," I whispered, "Oh Charlotte!" and there was a lump thick as a heart in my throat, and tears in my eyes, and the Ipo drums began to beat, and all over the rain forest lurid birds with yellow beaks and little bright black eyes were screeching.

    She stirred, and turned up her face to me, blinking. "I'm sorry," she said, "I wasn't listening. What did you say?"

Get it?


--- R J Pease


A
Doll's
House

Henrik Ibsen
Nicholas Rudall, translator

(Ivan R. Dee)
Nora has blown it. When Dad was dying, several years ago, she went out and got a loan from a local shyster named Krogstad. Unfortunately, Pops gave up the ghost before he could co-sign the note, so she forged his name, with a date three days after his official passing. In 1879 Oslo, they would say, "Just like a woman."

As we pick up on her, in the doll's house, where she lives, a living doll --- it's just about Christmas, eight years later. It's a middle class life in a middle class home in Norway, being pampered by her husband, a lawyer named Torvald --- a man replete with Scandinavian chilblains. He's just been made bank president, and his first task will be to tell Nora no, she can't have more money. The second will be to fire the scoundrel Krogstad, who works as a clerk --- the one who gave her the loan.

Krogstad tells Nora that if she doesn't put the squeeze on Torvald so he can keep his job he's going to blow the whistle on her. You know mid-Victorian Oslo --- it's quite different that modern-day laissiez-faire America: good people just don't forge financial notes. Once everyone finds out, Torvald will be disgraced; he will lose his social standing, perhaps his job, Nora may have to take in sewing for a living, and in the process, he and the three children will be beggared. No Chapter 13, no fed-sponsored S&L bailouts back in Norway a hundred or so years ago.

Fortuitously, Nora's old school friend Kristine Linde turns up, in what we might charitably call a deus ex machina. Nora tells her about Krogstad's threat. Now, Kristine was Krogstad's sweetie many years ago, but she dumped him for a man who, afterwards, went belly-up --- financially, not passionately. She's been sewing for a living every since. Once she hears the tale, she decides to save Nora's sweet ass.

She does a come-on to hungry Krogstad, tells him she's sorry she blew him off, and it was a great mistake, gives him the old don't-you-still-love-me honey routine --- and tells him to hurry off and reclaim the letter he sent to Torvald about Nora. Too late. Torvald opens the mail, finds out that Nora's a dirty forger. He doesn't know --- dramatic irony here --- that she got the money to take him on a vacation to Italy so she could make him well again, and, incidentally, learn to dance the Tarantella. She's quite good at it --- not forging, but dancing --- and when he isn't miffed at her, and calling her his little lark, Torvald tells her that her dancing makes him lusty, in a dry, heaving, 1880s Scandinavian kind of way.

He also calls her his squirrel. Little does he know that his squirrel has been squirreling away money for eight years to pay off the debt that brought him back from the brink of death. When he finds out about the note, he is beside himself. She's going to ruin his career. She's a hypocrite, "a liar...a criminal." She can't be trusted with the kids. They'll have to stay together for form's sake, but he'll lock her away from them. Her doll's house will turn into a jail house.

Well, his songbird is no longer interested in having her wings clipped. She had decided to kill herself over the shame of what she had done --- but Torvald acts like such a jerk that she decides that he can go to hell. She's going to take off, make a new life for herself, get away from him and the kids. She might even go back to Italy and dance the Tarantella some more, or even go west, to LA --- try to get on Hollywood Squares, join the Spice Girls.

He doesn't know what to make of his little lark ascending: doesn't quite believe her until she takes her things and goes out the door and the curtain comes down.

§     §     §

Those of us who had the misfortune to major in what they used to call "English" had to wade through plays written by the likes of Shakespeare, Kyd, Marlowe, Wycherly, Gay --- and odds and ends of romantic drama by Shelley and Keats. Those of us who were fool enough to do Greek Tragedy had to suffer with "The Trojan Women," "Oedipus," "Electra," and those of us who were dogs for pain did "Modern Drama" --- Ibsen, Strindberg, and the other "neo-realists." It was a pain, let me tell you.

For, it goes without saying that plays are meant to be played, not read. Shakespeare's a fine example: try to spend an evening with that windbag Lear ranting and raving on the page, or Hamlet's yes-I-will no-I-won't. Ditto in spades Julius Caesar. Indeed, most of the characters in Shakespeare are not the sort you'd want to be going to raves with --- be they hard-asses like Othello, Hamlet, Richard III, Brutus or soft-soaps like Romeo, King Henry IV, Part II and King Henry IV, Part II. Indeed, when we were being forced to study these plays, we were far more interested in our exploding libidos and less in theories of Renaissance stage-craft in general and the antics of Bottom, The Porter, Mercutio and Beatrice and Benedict in particular. We were certainly incurious about the art and craft of classical or neo-classical drama, especially as represented by the likes of Henrik Ibsen.

It is no wonder that many of us, in the years since then, have avoided drama-on-the-page with great enthusiasm. It is only in the line of duty, and a promised bonus from the tight-fisted editors of RALPH --- they promised me a weekend in Sun City! --- that I forced myself to spend an afternoon with Nora Helmer, and that drip Torvald, in their Doll's House.

What a surprise! Maybe it's Nicholas Rudall's new translation. I couldn't out it down. It's tight, and terse --- reads like a good spiffy short novel. Nora is a schizoid type, alternatively madly happy, and then, threatening to kill herself. To Torvald she acts like a doll --- and he, naturally, wants to keep her there, in her pretty dresses, a slave of love, with their doll-like children. And the villain Krogstad practically marches on stage curling his black moustache, saying, "Now, me proud beauty, I have you in my power."

Nora and Torvald do endless begging and scolding over moolah ("But we can't just go wasting money..." "You could give me more money...no more than you think you can spare...") making this bit of 19th Century drama just like a real 20th century marriage, battles over the budget in the TV room.

There's some byplay with a Dr. Rank, who's secretly in love with Nora (and secretly dying of syphilis --- venereal disease being an old Ibsen standby); there's the time-honored maid and Mrs. Linde --- but above all, the triad of Krogstad, Nora, and Torvald makes for a wonderful case study of what, now, in the late twentieth century, we could call a classically dysfunctional family system. Nora's decision to become a late Victorian hippie, on the road, children left behind, doesn't necessarily parse --- but it is still a rambling good melodrama, for those of us who are still fans of that particular genre.


--- Lolita Lark



#1

So, in my youth I wrote poetry.

Then, seeking adventure, I turned to crime.

Finally, I became revolutionary because that alone united poetry and crime.

So muses Stalin, at this start of this profound, spooky novel. In fact, the personality chillingly evoked in the book is concerned neither with poetry, nor with crime, nor with revolution. It is rather focused absolutely, and with iron discipline, on the pursuit of power for its own sake, and to be exercised...alone. As the speaker says near the end:

    Now I know what my name really means: Stalin is the strength to bear a world in which there is only nothing and yourself.

Whatever the accuracy of this attempt to psychoanalyze Stalin, Lourie has written a haunting and important meditation on recent history.

His Stalin speaks in a genial, unbuttoned mood in 1937/38. Things are going well. The Party, and the entire country, tremble before his will. He is busy preparing another of the great purge trials, and personally reviews the lists of Enemies of the People to be liquidated after they are found guilty. Here and there, in a moment of good-humour, he reduces the long prison-camp sentence to be imposed on some of the small fry. He is also supervising the plans to assassinate his nemesis, Trotsky. In moments off from this salutary work, he reminisces about his rise to power.

The reader understands that some of Stalin's greatest accomplishments still lie in the future. These include more of the great terror, extending on and on; the chummy division of Poland with the Nazis, and the seizure of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; the mass deportations of the Chechen, the Ingush, and other whole nations from the Caucasus in 1944; the post-war imposition of police states dominated by his creatures on the countries of east Europe, and the purges which these countries in their turn enjoyed. Even after Stalin's death, his work went on when his successors sent the Soviet army into Hungary in 1956, and into Czechoslovakia in 1968, in order to maintain the police states of the Soviet empire.

I am reminded of these parts of recent history by their striking absence from a review of "one hundred significant events of the 20th century in terms of freedom, human rights, and social justice" published in January by the Nation magazine. Events that were significant for "human rights" in both negative and positive senses were included. But the Nation included nothing whatsoever that occurred in this part of the world between the 1917 Russian revolution and the 1989 collapse of the East bloc. Could it be that the Nation does not view the Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Hungarians, Czechoslovaks, and all the other people east of the Elbe River (including the various inhabitants of the Soviet Union itself) as human?

But this is not really the attitude of the writers and editors at this magazine. Rather, they suffer a cognitive defect that was, and apparently still is, commonplace amongst a segment of the Western Left. Whenever history east of the Elbe calls for attention, or ought to, these patients fall into a sort of narcoleptic state in which no data can enter. Or, putting it another way, they automatically assume a pose like that of the proverbial three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. We must leave it to a qualified physician, like Dr. Oliver Sacks, to illuminate the neurology of this condition.

While we are on the subject of Stalin, let us inquire into the logic of the viewpoints which either falsified his role in recent history, or still minimize it. What are the premises underlying outright pro-Communist delusions in the Old Left, or the subtler three-monkeys syndrome that is still observable?

For outright defenders of the Soviet imperium in the Old Left, the premise had to do with time. Many of these individuals, especially in Europe, understood full well that the Soviet Union was nothing like the workers' paradise portrayed in propaganda for the simple-minded. They knew this because they themselves had friends and colleagues in the Soviet Union (or in the satellite states) who had disappeared without a trace in the endless purges. Yet they went grimly along with the propaganda for the sake, they thought, of the future : a future evolution of Socialism which would redeem all the purges, the labour camps, the mass deportations, the betrayals, the lies.

Yet they never asked themselves how a society of purges, labour camps, mass deportations, betrayals, and lies could evolve into something not only better, but so much better than any other society now available as to redeem its ghastly present. Their premise, in short, set time on its head, taking the future --- which does not actually exist --- as philosophically prior to the present. This in turn explains why Communist sympathizers were so rigidly insistent on the inevitability of their imagined future: for the logic to work, that future had to be more real than the present.

The rest of us live in a universe in which the future, far from retroactively redeeming the present, instead grows out of it. And this, is precisely what happened east of the Elbe. The imaginary future stubbornly failed to arrive, and the increasingly sclerotic reality of the Soviet Empire steadily undercut fantasies about its future. By the time the whole thing melted away like a bad dream --- by the time, in another words, that the real future arrived --- the western Communist parties had become almost as senescent as the object of their adoration. And by this point, unaffiliated sympathizers had taken to averting their eyes from the displeasing spectacle of reality in action.

So one form of the three-monkeys syndrome is simply a kind of convalescence from old, pro-Soviet illusions. Another form, however, is distinct from this, and follows from a logical misunderstanding of the Left's basic premise. What is the basic issue which divides the Left from the Right? It is the moral character of capitalism. Rightists celebrate capitalism: they consider it positively virtuous. Moderates or what used to be called Liberals accept capitalism as a practical reality (and a productive one) susceptible to management and adjustment for larger, humanistic social ends.

But Leftists take it as axiomatic that capitalism is literally DEmoralizing, destructive of moral values. (This rather oversimplifies Marx's subtler analysis, but leave that aside; we are discussing an attitude amongst the pop-Left, not a deeply thought-out position.) Let us accept this basic axiom of the Left for the sake of argument: capitalism is an evil. It does not follow from this premise that capitalism is the only evil in the universe. But that is precisely the illogical jump that many Leftists take, unconsciously. It leaves them rather at a loss not only in regard to Stalinism, but in regard to many aspects of the real world.

The logical error can be illustrated by imagining an analogous one in the field of medical practice. Imagine a medical researcher who has devotedly studied diphtheria all his life, in the course of which he has convinced himself that diphtheria is the only disease. So, he insists that best preventive measure against AIDS is immunization of everybody against diphtheria. For the treatment of cancer, he recommends penicillin. When a patient comes to him with a broken leg, the patient is treated with a shot of diphtheria anti-toxin. If our researcher were to compile a list of "100 significant events in the 20th century in the history of medicine", they would all deal with nothing but diphtheria.

No wonder that a general air of unreality, indeed of crankiness, surrounds our medical researcher like a cloud. Too bad, because nobody takes a crank seriously --- even if diphtheria really is one of the diseases that afflict us, although not the only one.

Lourie's "Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" reminds us (if we need reminding) of the range and variety of evils that afflict human history.


--- Jon Gallant


#2

Jung says that the major figures in our life (figures of love, hate, fear, anger, passion) have all come to us by the time we are ten. We internalize them at the same time that we are internalizing the language, the ethics, the morals of our world, the mannerisms that we grow up with.

We learn our love-hunger early on. We fall in love, starting at age zero (or thereabouts) with perceived knights, fairies, and angels in the form of mothers, fathers, nurses, and peers. By the time we have passed the first decade, we are already programmed for our lives ahead.

Much as a girl, before birth, contains all the ova of all her would-be children within; and much as a boy, while still in the womb, has had his first erection and orgasm (they say it comes at the moment of birth, when the meatus is dragged against the walls of the cervix), so have children established the adult loves and hates and obsessions that will accompany them, nay, drive them through life.

It is possible to reprogram some of these shadow plays that we carry about with us. Powerful psychedelic drugs are said to be useful for this: LSD, Peyote, Psilocybin, "Magic Mushrooms." (That is, of course, why they are outlawed in what we fondly call the "civilized" world.) Psychoanalysis --- in all its many manifestations (psychotherapy, group therapy, counselling) --- can have the same effect and, although painful, and slow, and tedious, may be successful. Both represent a mode of exorcising the ghosts that we have internalized to survive the shark-infested waters so romantically referred to as Youth and Childhood.

Another way to beard these spooks (the spooks we must please) is through death: either personal, self-imposed, or by means of wars, crimes, terrorism --- eg, forcing whole civilizations to commit your suicide for you. Death solves so many problems --- especially the ones brought on by immense internal pain, and there are no end of politicians, leaders, ministers, presidents, popes, caudillos, politburo chairmen who are willing to commit us to death to recompense for their own miseries left over from 30 or 40 or 50 years past: their virulent, grim, hag-ridden childhoods. Because they cannot vitiate their own spooks --- they are kind enough to volunteer to kill the rest of us. Thus, Josef Stalin.

§     §     §

It should be easy to write about a person of pure evil as it would be to write about one of pure sanctity. Compare Beelzebub in Paradise Lost to the Heavenly Angels, or Iago to Juliet, or Alyosha to his beastly father. At the same time, there was and always will be a fascination with the purity of pure evil: and Joseph Stalin was about as bad as they come.

Lourie takes him from Georgia to the Kremlin, passing through his years as stalwart for the party, organizing strikes in Tsarist Russia, meeting with Trotsky and Lenin --- indeed, becoming Lenin's hatchet man. We come to his history, where the father of Joseph Dzhugashvili Stalin) who regularly "threw him against the wall," the mother who only wanted a career for him in the Church, the fellow revolutionaries who he reported to the Tsar's police whenever it would pay off for him. We see him at all times carefully, very carefully working his way to the top. "The capacity to tolerate boredom," he says, echoing many a wise, ambitious man, "was what made it possible." He attributes his three exiles in the gulags for creating his tolerance for tedium --- one which led him to getting himself put in charge of the card file of the Party.

According to Lourie, there are three forces that drove Stalin and made him what he was. His toleration for boredom; his carefully nurtured heartlessness; and his loathing for Trotsky. For Trotsky, in exile in Mexico, holds somewhere in his many notes the secret that may well destroy Stalin, the one that he fears the most; the secret that no one knows, that no one can never know (all the parties --- except Trotsky --- have been murdered to keep the secret about Lenin's death). We started out by quoting Jung, because it is difficult, sometimes impossible to figure out why the Stalins and Pol Pots and Hitlers and Tamerlaines are so obsessed with destroying others. Lourie tries in The Autobiography of Stalin, and almost suceeds. As much as one can when faced with such unmitigated, startling evil.


--- Ignacio Schwartz


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