TOKENSby Sharon Mesmer, Dan Fall, and Polly Rosenwaike
Carmen Firan, Words & Flesh—Selected Fiction and Essays (Talisman House, 2008)
Seven stories and seven essays comprise Firan’s fourth prose collection in English. The stories—translated from Romanian by Mona Nicoara, Dorin Motz, Doris Sangeorzan and Julian Semilian—are as masterful and enigmantic as Kawabata’s shorter “palm-of-the-hand stories.” Half poetry and half prose (but never prose poetry), they spring from an impulse to “navigate the chasm”—that fraught and difficult trajectory between innocence and knowledge, life and death, basement and attic, old country and new: the place where true illumination and healing occurs. The vivid characters of these stories act as mediators of that zone, literal “go-betweens”: Dick the Eastern-European boiler man, a “delicate-boned giant” who loves small things (even the mice that populate his basement); Roscov the naturalized immigrant who falls in love with books but is disappointed by a charismatic author; and Mircea the painter who can’t understand the fretful wife who supports him but teaches Brian, a young American dying of AIDS, to “fly.” These go-betweens function as mediators, as shamans—wounded healers. Because they regard the chasm with interest while never attempting to understand it, they can remain present, enchanted by pure existence. They understand that “happiness” is a false (and very American) idea—a mirage. As Mircea repeats to whoever will listen, “The closer you get to the horizon, the farther away it gets.”
While the seven stories present characters who navigate the chasm, the seven insightful and beautifully textured essays (translated by Alexandra Carides) give us a guide to that navigation—language itself:
“Salvation through words is a personal discovery . . . What are words? Are they energy, matter, or ineffable beings? Where do they come from and where are they heading? . . . We are left with metaphor to enable us to explore what is otherwise inaccessible.”
Of that fraught (and very American) notion of “happiness,” Firan writes:
What is called ‘happiness’ oscillates between being entertainment, having fun, and enjoying—palliatives to convince one that life is worth living.
Thus even happiness oscillates on its own trajectory (a trajectory of our own invention, of course) over the chasm. But the chasm will always remain ours to navigate and live within. If our pole star is language and our map metaphor, then Firan’s illuminating tales are our worthy vessel.
Edward Foster, History of the Common Scale (Texture Press, 2009)
Edward Foster’s poetry, always exacting and infinitely sweeping, comes to us like a whisper from behind our own ears.
No, sweet prince,
like you, your sons grow old
before their time.
Foster can pull thoughts from air—and we delight in his ability to express the unsaid. “All around, the walls that line our city start to break.” But the poems in History of the Common Scale are also rooted in personal interactions. In “The People Making Money for You,” Foster addresses the crowd of monetizers who were until recently lauded:
They strengthen our economy.
They all have dogs—
big ones in many colors,
These people eat their food in little gulps.
These people tell us what they’ll do when they get old.
Foster’s simplicity in handling location, relationships and themes ranging from age to love to jealousy to sorrow, is deceptively plastic. His poems suspend themselves just above language, connotative of some understanding—perhaps common to all of us—that recedes at the brink of words. It is just on this cusp, with some doubt, some explaining, that we find Foster, and trust him to guide us on an impossible course. With pristine lucidity, he knows, the “propositions weren’t enough.”
Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American (Picador, 2009)
Many of us have forgotten. But Brooklyn’s Siri Hustvedt returns us to the question of what it means to be an American—what it means to be a nation of people that come from far and wide, geographically and spiritually. In an historical moment when we all feel inextricably “here,” Hustvedt’s meditation is on the collective experiment of a population borne from everywhere else.
With sections drawn from her own father’s journal, Hustvedt traces the significance of loss. Her protagonist, Erik Davidsen, sifts the artifacts left behind by his father, who has recently passed away. A fifty-year-old murder surfaces, and Erik and his sister attempt to redefine themselves.
Hustvedt is willing to allow the characters space to meander, and equally willing to take up her narration from a variety of constructs. She works with the thriller, and art criticism, philosophy and noir. Throughout, readers will sense the landscape of Minnesota, and an American history just as vast. The Depression. World War Two. As the novel moves back to the urban density of Brooklyn, we feel the psychological encroachment.
America is young no longer; its wounds are healed over, and aching with the complexities that age brings to pain. Hustvedt’s is a patient analysis, and readers will bear with her through her ruminations, to find, if not clarity, a comforting touch on the scar.
Harold Holzer, Lincoln as I Knew Him (Algonquin, 2009)
Reading Lincoln As I Knew Him, Harold Holzer’s collection of accounts about the 16th president from forty-nine of his contemporaries, is like listening to a long afternoon of eulogies for someone you didn’t know. At first you pay attention with interest and reverence, but after a while you start daydreaming about the food that will be offered at the reception. Organized into various groups of people that had some kind of connection to Lincoln (i.e. family, journalists, foes, African-Americans), this book of excerpts lacks the kind of narrative momentum that a biography or a historical study might offer. It’s a compendium of reminiscences that often cover the same ground about Lincoln’s appearance, his character, his quirks, and his quandaries. Holzer, who has written and edited thirty-three books on Lincoln and the Civil War era, is apparently indefatigable on the subject. Readers may be tempted to skim.
The best accounts illuminate something of the time as well as the man, capturing the feel of the presidency in the 1860s. In Holzer’s introduction to a piece by Noah Brooks, who served as Washington correspondent of the Sacramento Daily Union, he explains, “The President granted him broad access, partly because he was fond of the reporter, and partly because Brooks’s articles, dispatched west by Pony Express, took so long to appear in print that they seldom posed a threat to the secrecy of administration policy.” Brooks describes the daily flow of people who arrived at the White House and were allowed entrance. “[It] may be a Brigadier wanting promotion, an inventor after a contract, a curiosity hunter with an autograph book, a Major General seeking a command, a lady with a petition for a pass to Richmond, a cabinet minister after a commission for a favorite, a deputation asking an impossibility, or a committee demanding an impertinence.” During Lincoln’s time, it appears, if you could make it to D.C., you could meet face-to-face with the most powerful man in the country.
The intimate moments chronicled by such folks as Mary Todd’s dressmaker, Abe’s sculptor, and their sons’ young babysitter provide some of the pleasures of Holzer’s exhaustive tribute. From the dressmaker (who later wrote a memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House) we learn about Mrs. Lincoln’s jealousy of her husband’s “flirtations with silly women.” The babysitter characterizes the couple’s parenting style: “If there was any motto or slogan of the White House during the early years of the Lincolns’ occupancy it was this: ‘Let the Children Have a Good Time.’” The sculptor, Leonard Wells Volk, relays some of Lincoln’s most colorful lines. One Sunday the President chose a visit to the artist’s studio over attending a friend’s church. “I don’t like to hear cut and dried sermons,” he told Volk. “No—when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”
Perhaps the most moving anecdote in the collection comes from Frederick Douglass, who met with Lincoln several times. Douglass describes his experience attending the President’s second inauguration in 1865, a month before he was assassinated. When Douglass tried to enter the inaugural reception, policemen seized him, prepared to force him out the window on a plank. But when Lincoln learned what was happening, Douglass was ushered into the East Room of the White House. “I could not have been more than ten feet from him when Mr. Lincoln saw me; his countenance lighted up, and he said in a voice which was heard all around: ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’” The simple vindication of the moment is sincerely affecting.
In an interview that ends the book, Holzer explains that his interest in Lincoln began when his fifth grade teacher assigned a composition on a historical figure and had the students pick names out of a hat to choose their subject. Holzer picked—you guessed it. Lincoln as I Knew Him is a little like dipping into the familiar hat (tall, broad-brimmed) and pulling out Lincoln every time. Just when you’re starting to get to know him, you have to stop and then start to get to know him all over again.