Monday, December 21, 2009

New Fiction: John Strausbaugh & Jennifer Howard

Terrific news for me and for Balkans via Bohemia readers: Two of my best pals (who happen to be terrific fiction writers) have new stories on the Interwebs.

First up is John Strausbaugh. The former New York Press editor wrote some really terrific fiction in the 1980s and early 1990s before he got sucked up into the journalism/nonfiction game, and the fact that he's posted four new stories up on his author website is the best news I've heard in a long time.

Not going to ruin the stories for you. They're terrific and you should read them.

Those who already know Strausbaugh's fiction from works including Flying Fish and Going Out and Poems/Prose are going to be delighted. And if you only know and like Strausbaugh's nonfiction work (see a recent interview with him about those books here), you'll find that the stories have all the energy and smarts in those books with even thornier barbs and a couple buckets of madcap wit.

Oh, hell. A bit from "The Fiery Sward," just as a teaser. God's quizzing angels Gabriel and Belbab about certain elements of Creation:

"Yes yes," God muttered. "Look here, what do you know about this thing called a Brussels sprout?"

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. He glanced at the top of Belbab's head.

"Brussels," Belbab recited. "One of a number of compact groups of habitats in which the humans will dwell after the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Sprout, the unmaturated — "

"What about it, Lord?" Gabriel cut him off.

"Did I create it?" God asked him.

Gabriel raised his hands over his head and lowered his eyes. "O most great and all powerful God," he orated in a spectacular, ringing voice, "is there a single thing living or inert which thou in thy boundless wisdom didst not fashion? Is there a single blade of grass, a solitary atom in the vast deeps of deepest space which thou didst not — "

"Don't patronize me," God snapped.

Gabriel lowered his hands. "I'll have to check the plans," he said. "Is there a problem with the Brussels sprout?"

"Adam doesn't like it," God said.

"Oh," Gabriel replied, and his face took on an inscrutability they all got lately when they were trying to hide their thoughts from God. "Adam doesn't like it. I see. Yeah well then we'll get right on it. A course."

"And while you're at it look into this mosquito creature."


"Mo-skee-to," God said.

Added bonus? Strausbaugh's convinced some of the best illustrators from his tenure at New York Press -- former art director Michael Gentile (whose illo for "Teenagers from Earth!"adorns this post) and Takeshi Tadatsu -- to contribute drawings.

* * * * *

Also stepping up to the fiction plate in late December is my friend and former Chronicle of Higher Education colleague Jennifer Howard, who has three short pieces up in the new issue of The Collagist. (The magazine's blog also features an interview with Jennifer.)

Jennifer's sense of economy and fun in these pieces makes "flash fiction" seem like something a lot more long-lasting and satisfying. Check them out!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Milorad Pavić 1929-2009

It goes to show just how out of it that I have been with work and other seasonal madness (including two feet of snow in Washington D.C.) that I somehow missed the death of one of Serbia's most innovative and provocative writers: Milorad Pavić.

Pavić's greatest work was Dictionary of the Khazars -- a novel written in the form of dictionary entries that purported to retell a mythical Khazar polemic in which Christian, Jewish and Muslim divines debated before the Emperor of the Khazars, who would then decide to which religion he and his people would convert.

The book is clearly an allegory about the divided religion and culture of Yugoslavia, but its playfulness and panache make it a terrific reading experience even if you know little or nothing about Yugoslavia. In particular, Pavić's pastiches of the writings of various medieval and Renaissance holy books is devilishly delightful.

Pavić's other works took equally novel forms: crossword puzzles, tarot cards. Much of his work has been translated into English. He's definitely worth exploring if you are a fan of fictive innovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Pavić on two occasions, when he cheerily signed books for my friends and seemed absolutely delighted to hear that he had a substantial readership in English.

Read the excellent obituary in today's New York Times here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Poem by C.P. Cavafy

Find what relevance to our contemporary situation you can.
(Translation by Stratis Haviarias):

In the Great Hellenist Colony, 200 BCE

That things in the colony aren't going so well,
there's no doubt about it, anyone can tell,
and while it's true that we are making some progress,
perhaps now is the right time, as many people believe,
for us to invite in a political reformer.

But then there's a problem with that, a complication:
these Reformers are disposed to making everything
into such a big deal (it would indeed be a blessing
if we never had need of them). They're compelled to
challenge and scrutinize every last little thing,
and then instantly cook up some radical reform,
which they insist must be implemented post-haste.

Then there's their natural affection for sacrifices:
Relinquish that possession of yours;
owning it is a risky proposition;
it's just such things that harm the colonies.
Abandon that certain source of income,
and the income that follows from it,
and the third one, too, as a logical consequence;
of course it's true that they're significant, but --
sorry to say -- they pose a source of peril for you.

And as they dig deeper, in the course of their inspections,
they find more and more things to eliminate as useless;
though these are things, it must be said, that are hard to get rid of.

And when, finally, they've concluded their work,
and have pored over the smallest detail and slashed away at it,
they take their leave (taking with them the fees they're owed)
and we're left to make sense of just what remains,
in the wake of such surgical efficiency.

Perhaps the time isn't quite right for that,
We mustn't jump to conclusions: haste can be it's own problem.
Premature measures can lead to remorse.
Sadly, it goes without saying that the colony has its problems.
But by the same token, is there anything human that doesn't?
In the end, what really matters is that we're moving forward.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Anti-Semitism

Over at Ibishblog, my good friend Hussein Ibish has a fascinating post about The Merchant of Venice, The Jew of Malta and whether either or both plays are anti-Semitic.

I'd encourage you to read his argument in full, especially since I have had the privilege of discussing this a few times with Ibish as he's wrestled with his interest in this question.

The literature on The Merchant of Venice is voluminous, of course, so I would like to add a few thoughts on The Jew of Malta.

For me, the prologues (published in their entirety in the Penguin Classics editor of The Complete Plays) are the key to bolstering Ibish's argument that:

Marlowe's play is simply cynical, misanthropic and deeply antireligious. He holds all cultures, civilizations and religious traditions in equal contempt and in that sense, I think it is perfectly impossible to describe the Jew of Malta as anti-Semitic. It's anti-everything.

It can't be put much more simply or clearly than in "The Prologue Spoken At Court":

We pursue
The story of a rich and famous Jew
Who lived in Malta. You shall find him still,
In all his projects, a sound Machevill;
And that's his character.

Machevil, of course, gets his own speech in the actual Prologue to the play proper, and the framing device for the play is laid out quite clearly:

Albeit the world think Machevil is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious;
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machiavel,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men's words.
Admir'd I am of those that hate me most:
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet will they read me, and thereby attain
To Peter's chair; and, when they cast me off,
Are poison'd by my climbing followers.
I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past!
I am asham'd to hear such fooleries.
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco's, they were writ in blood.
Hence comes it that a strong-built citadel
Commands much more than letters can import:
Which maxim had Phalaris observ'd,
H'ad never bellow'd, in a brazen bull,
Of great ones' envy: o' the poor petty wights
Let me be envied and not pitied.
But whither am I bound? I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britain,
But to present the tragedy of a Jew,
Who smiles to see how full his bags are cramm'd;
Which money was not got without my means.
I crave but this,--grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.

This is a moral universe turned upside down -- a seething pot of lies, conspiracy and power politics in which nothing is as it seems, where the moral rule of the universe is Machevil's amorality. Those who rule this world speak not of him and keep their knowledge. Those who seem the most religious are, in reality, his greatest adherents. I think these Prologues bolster Ibish's case: The Jew of Malta is not anti-Semitic, but a screed against the common hollowness and hypocrisy of all the Abrahamic faiths.