31 January 2013

School Violence

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 2:29 pm

Of course Sandy Hook was a tragedy. It was also an anomaly. According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics:

During the school year 2008–09 there were 1,579 homicides among school-age youth ages 5–18, of which 17 occurred at school. During the 2008 calendar year, there were 1,344 suicides of youth ages 5–18, of which 7 occurred at school. I.e., school is a lot safer than not-school for kids.

“Violent victimizations” include simple assault, rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault. The rate of nonfatal violent victimizations of 12-18 year olds occurring at school declined from 55 per 1,000 in 1994 to 14 per thousand in 2010. I.e., schools are a lot safer now than they were 20 years ago.

Based on national data, homicide victims are disproportionately male, young, poor, and black. So are the perpetrators. So are prison inmates. I’m all for tough gun laws and tight school security, but the US incarceration rate has doubled over the past 20 years and quintupled over the past half-century. Drugs are regarded as a “gateway crime,” presumably leading to more serious infractions, and so a lot of poor kids get thrown in jail for possession as a preventive measure. No doubt the new tough-on-guns stance will result in more locker searches, more pat-downs, more busts for firearm possession even when no other crime is being committed. Almost certainly those arrested and sent to jail/detention in this new crackdown will, once again, be disproportionately male, poor, and black. But it’s certainly a cheaper solution than more and better schools, housing, jobs…

29 January 2013

Pnin by Nabokov, 1957

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 7:39 am

“Incidentally,” she said, as he was helping her into her coat and as usual searching with a frown for the fugitive armhole while she pawed and groped, “you know, Timofey, this brown suit of yours is a mistake: a gentleman does not wear brown.”

He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her — just as she was — with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in heaven (I don’t believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life—

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution to the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like movement, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eying him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.

The water father continued upon his way, came to the end of the path, then turned into a side street where there was a small bar of log-cabin design with garnet glass in its casement windows.

*  *  *

I finished Pnin last night: entertaining, keenly observed, finely crafted. The storytelling is perhaps more traditionally Russian than many of the stories Nabokov wrote in his native tongue while in European exile twenty years earlier. Even the narrator, tangentially involved in the lives of the characters but also detached in ironic reflexivity as he looks back on events that unfolded some time before the telling, seems Chekhovian. The style fits perfectly, since the titular character Pnin is old-school nostalgic Russian to the point of endearing parody, displaced into bourgeois-democratic America as scrutinized by the satirically observant eye of the sophisticated intellectual expatriate. Timofey Pnin is Humbert Humbert’s good twin.

27 January 2013


Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:59 pm

Lola de Valence


–  Edouard Manet, 1862

Lola de Valence

Entre tant de beautés que partout on peut voir,
Je contemple bien, amis, que le désir balance;
Mais on voit scintiller en Lola de Valence
Le charme inattendu d’un bijou rose et noir.

Among such beauties as one can see everywhere
I understand, my friends, that desire hesitates;
But one sees sparkling in Lola of Valencia
The unexpected charm of a black and rose jewel.

— Charles Baudelaire, 1863, translated by William Aggeler

“The Triumph of Manet”

…Manet, with his fondness for the picturesquely exotic, still paying tribute to the toreador, the guitar, and the mantilla, though already half won over to everyday objects, to models found in the street, must have seemed to Baudelaire like a close reflection of his own problem: the crucial condition, for an artist, of being subject to several opposing temptations and actually capable of expressing himself in a variety of admirable styles.

We need only glance through the slender collection of Les Fleurs du mal, noting the significant and as it were concentrated variety of subjects in the poems, and compare it with the variety of subjects to be remarked in the list of Manet’s works, to decide on a reasonably obvious affinity between the preoccupations of the poet and the painter…

Both were born into the same environment of the old Paris bourgeoisie, and both display the same rare combination of a refined elegance in matters of taste with a singular strength of will in their work.

Furthermore: they were both equally contemptuous of any effects not arrived at by conscious clarity, and the full possession of the resources of their craft; it is this quality, which defines purity, in painting as in poetry. They have no mind to speculate on “sentiment” or introduce “ideas,” until the “sensation” has been skillfully and subtly organized. In fact, what they aimed at and reached was the supreme quality in art — charm, a term which I use here in all its force.

That is what I think of when I recall the delicious line — a line that seemed equivocal to the evil-minded, and a scandal to the Law — the famous bijou rose et noir which was Baudelaire’s tribute to Lola de Valence. A mysterious jewel, it seems to me less appropriate to the strong and stocky danseuse in her rich and heavy Spanish petticoat, standing superbly in wait behind the scenes, ready, with all her supple sureness of muscle, for the signal that will release the vigor, rhythm, and syncopated violence of her dance, than to the cold and naked Olympia, that monster of banal sensuality, ministered to by a negress…

– Paul Valéry, 1932


She was Lola in slacks.

– Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

25 January 2013

Softball Diaries

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:49 am

On my walk this morning I was thinking about a writing project. Here’s an illustration of how it would work. The indented italicized bit is the first half of the first paragraph of the first novel in the series that I’m coming close to finishing. The non-indented, non-italicized commentary is the imagined writing project.

* * *

The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no stereo system blasting rock oldies on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please.

I’ve never spent much time in bars. On summer breaks during my college years I played on a softball team sponsored by Boomer’s Tap, a neighborhood bar frequented mostly by middle-aged working class men from the neighborhood.  Once I reached official drinking age I would join my teammates at Boomer’s to drown our sorrows after yet another defeat. I was the team’s pitcher, but I didn’t take my responsibilities very seriously. I wore a 60 on the back of my jersey, the number corresponding to the percent effort I typically put out during the games, as evaluated by my teammates. I thought of myself as an outfielder, the position I’d played since Little League. But this was 16-inch slow-pitch, the game of choice for beer-swilling middle-aged working class men in Chicago. For some reason I had a hell of a time judging flies, even though the ball was so much bigger and moving so much more slowly than a real 9-inch-in-circumference baseball, the flight of which I could track with great accuracy. Because I was a good hitter I was deemed an offensive asset to the softball team, so to minimize my defensive liabilities I became the pitcher.

In 16-inch softball, as in hardball, pitching is a glamor position. It’s understandable in hardball, where speed and spin and location dramatically affect the batter’s ability to make solid contact. But this was a big old softball arcing slowly toward home plate: there’s not much a pitcher can do to fool the batter. Sure, you could try to aim inside or outside, high in the strike zone or low, propelling the ball on a big looping trajectory or a relatively flat one. But with that big fat ball floating up there the batter has plenty of time to adjust, shift stance, step backward or forward in the batter’s box, take a big swing. Backspin, trying to induce a popup rather than a line drive or a deep fly ball? Against the rules. The pitcher is, however, allowed to pretend to pitch: wind up, begin the underhanded throwing delivery, then suddenly stop and hold onto the ball for a moment or two before starting again. Two feints are allowed before actually delivering the ball to the batter. A lot of the beer-belly pitchers in the Chicago softball leagues loved the showmanship, the theatrics of pretending. Between the feints and the pitch they would drag their back leg forward or to the side, glare intently at the base runners, pull their waistbands up over their bellies, and so on. As a batter I would just wait, bat on shoulder, for these guys to finish their contortions, not shifting the bat into actual hitting position until the ball was finally on its way toward the plate. As pitcher for the Boomer’s Tap team I just couldn’t take my  job seriously. No feints: just throw it up there and let the hitter take his best shot. That’s why my teammates gave me a 60% score for effort.

I can with complete honesty and some shame report that I never, not once, picked up a girl at a bar etc. etc. I do like dining alone at a café table though etc. etc.

The mirror, the bowlful of clementines, the barista’s black velvet jacket, the bottle of Bass Ale — reference the painting by Manet:


We bought a print of this painting after seeing the original at the Courtauld in London. For years it hung on one wall or another of one house or another that we lived in. Our daughter’s violin teacher loved this print, so when we got rid of most of our belongings in preparation for moving to France we gave it to her. Etc. etc. about trying to arrange for violin lessons in France, about the violin being lost in transit on our move back to the US, about never having actually visited the Folies Bergère on any of our trips to Paris.

*  *  *

After this little experiment I realize that, if I were going to pursue this project, I’d stick to the more precise ways in which the fictional corresponds to the nonfictional. So I’d skip the softball vignette but include the Manet and maybe also the violin lessons. Then the text is framed not so much as an autobiography but as an illustration of how seemingly random elements in a fiction have parallel manifestations in the writer’s life. It’s not as though every line of fiction I’ve written would have a direct correspondence in my memoirs, but with enough fragments a reader might be able to triangulate on who I am. All the more reason not to do it.

18 January 2013


Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:01 am

Many years ago my traveler’s checks were stolen in Tangier by some English guy who later cashed them in Timbuktu, which happens to be in Mali. Other than that I had paid virtually no attention to the place until the French government’s recent military intervention. Here’s what I’ve pieced together:

Mali has undergone numerous political upheavals since France cut it loose in 1960. From 1992 a publicly elected government held office. Just before the scheduled 2012 elections the military seized power via a coup. The military say they took charge because the elected government was not maintaining a hard enough line against the Tuaregs of the north, who wanted to establish an Islamist state. I infer that the military was concerned about Islamist candidates doing well in the upcoming elections, as well as the possibility that the Tuaregs would be permitted to secede from Mali in order to form their own nation. Not surprisingly, a sizable proportion of the Malian populace is incensed that a stable, popularly-elected government has been deposed by military strongmen. Again not surprisingly, the resistance is being led by the Tuaregs.

So when France unleashes bombing sorties against the so-called Islamist extremist terrorists, it’s siding with the leaders of the military coup that only last year overthrew the democratically elected government. The Malian government has also called on neighboring Algeria to aid in suppressing the resistance. Algeria’s history is similar to Mali’s. In 1991 an Islamist coalition won the popular elections. In response a military coup ensued, deposing the elected government and triggering a civil war in which something like 200 thousand people were killed. A democratic republic has subsequently been installed, but it’s clear that the military still controls the Algerian government.

Again not surprisingly, not a few Algerians take exception to the Algerian military strongmen going to the aid of the Malian military strongmen. And so in protest an armed Islamist faction took control of a natural gas field, holding local and foreign energy workers as hostages. The Algerian military came charging in, guns blazing, mowing down captors and captives alike.

Is this largely an ethnic skirmish, limited to an uprising among the minority Tuaregs who also happen to be supporters of sharia law? Or are the Tuaregs standing on the front lines of a more widespread popular resistance against the military dictators that have seized power in the country? I don’t know. An estimated 90% of Malians are Islamic, but that doesn’t mean most of them support the establishment of an Islamic state. But I’d be surprised if most of them prefer a military dictatorship to the elected government which it overthrew just last year.

12 January 2013

Faulkner’s Narrator on the Floating Signifier

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 1:27 pm

“It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know. We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood we see ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable — Yes, Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them. They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and folded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.”

– William Faulkner, Absolom, Absolom!, 1936

8 January 2013

Squirrel, Uselessness, Pony Express

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:43 pm

1. In my O’Gandhi novel I included an episode about removing a dead raccoon from the main character’s chimney, a fictional event based closely on real life. Again yesterday, several years later, we had to call an animal removalist, though this time it was a live squirrel. I won’t write this one up, but I will note that the tactical equipment included a green cloth grocery sack, two blue rags, and a bottle a chloroform. “Good boy,” the removalist complimented the still-very-alert squirrel while tossing it over the back porch railing.

2. Daughter Kenzie has been rewriting a novel she originally wrote during 2011 NaNoWriMo. Here’s a bit of dialogue from the work in progress, tentatively entitled The Sin Aesthetic:

“What do you mean,” she inquired, “when you say you wonder if art should be useful?”

“Only that some things are more enjoyable if they are of no practical value. The beauty of a portrait is not its ability to make a profit unless it is of very poor quality indeed. Its beauty is much more reliant on its sheer implausibility and impracticality. Few people in reality pose the way they do in paintings of themselves, but the discrepancy often heightens their portrait’s quality. I find that use tends to cheapen art horribly.”

Lucia thought that Mr Fenmore looked rather like some idealized portrait as he lounged upon his sofa, and she found herself hoping that he was a perfectly useless individual.     

“Is this a commonly held opinion in Apollyn, Mr Fenmore?”

He chuckled softly. “I am uncertain that it has occurred to the majority of genteel Apollynians that there is any use beyond beauty. It may not be a subject on which most people have an opinion, since it is assumed that everything should be beautiful, and that only some things need to be useful.”

3. I’ve been looking again at The Courier. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it when I finished editing it a few months ago; now, after letting it breathe, I’m finding it more palatable. Today, for example, I was pleased to come across a sentence that includes four colons. While rereading I’ve also taken the occasion to add passing references to Hermes, Trismegistus, and the Pony Express.

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