How far is the trajectory of an author’s writing career and the themes that guide it related to the moment and nature of his or her death? What I am suggesting is that a novelist’s work is often a strategy (I don’t mean the author need be aware of this) for dealing with some personal dilemma. Not just that the dilemma is “worked out” in the narrative, as critics often tell us, but that the acts of writing and publishing and positioning oneself in the world of literature are all part of an attempt to find a solution, however provisional, to some deep personal unease.
Much of the political surveillance of the 1960s and the 1970s consisted in efforts to identify organizations that were critical of government policies and gather information on their adherents. The surveillance practices of the NSA revealed in recent weeks are fundamentally different. They attempt to identify patterns of electronic behavior that arouse the government’s suspicion rather than individuals associated with certain organizations or causes. Yet these new forms of surveillance, over time, may lead in the same direction. Those who are targeted may be excluded from certain benefits or opportunities on the basis of having been identified for engaging in activities that are legitimate. If that were to happen, they are unlikely ever to find out that they have been blocked on such grounds.
Twenty years ago this month, Berlin-based artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock inaugurated their hugely controversial memorial for a former Jewish district of West Berlin known as the Bavarian Quarter. Today, Germany is filled with memorials and institutions dealing with aspects of the Holocaust, including Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and Berlin’s central Holocaust memorial. But Stih and Schnock’s in-your-face signs about Nazi policies, integrated into the present-day life of a residential Berlin neighborhood, remain one of the most visceral and unsettling. I recently walked through the Bavarian Quarter—which is part of Berlin’s Schöneberg district—with the artists to discuss their work and its legacy.
From the opening pages of his 1897 novel What Maisie Knew, Henry James merges the voice and the perspective of the author with that of his young protagonist, thus boldly circumventing any doubts about whether a child would use the word objurgation. Mixing dramatic scenes with long passages of narration, James is able to compress a great deal of information into a short space and to delve ever more deeply into Maisie’s psyche. Unable to convey the psychological depth and preternatural maturity that James gives his fictional heroine, McGehee and Siegel’s new film adaptation has turned Maisie into a wide-eyed, passive observer, watching the grown-ups misbehave.
Bashar al-Assad is head of an ostensibly secular Baathist regime and many Shia think his sect, the Alawites, are heretics. Why then is Hezbollah fighting for the regime, and is this conflict really rooted in religion? The answer to both these questions may lie in a suburb of Damascus called Sayyida Zainab, the site of an important Shia shrine and since the 1970s a haven for foreign Shia activists and migrants in Syria. Though the story of Sayyida Zainab is little known in the West, it may help explain why what began as a peaceful uprising against secular authoritarian rule in 2011 has increasingly become a war between Shia and Sunni that has engulfed much of the surrounding region.
One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. Above all are the physical spaces. There are now not just individual buildings but entire streetscapes, with cobblestone alleys, faux churches (often used as concert halls), towers, and landscaping designed to reproduce the feel of European and North American cities. The city of Huizhou features a replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt; while Hangzhou, a city famous for its own waterfront culture, now includes a “Venice Water Town” that has Italian-style buildings, canals, and gondolas. What drives this obsession with foreign styles?
One of my favorite items in the Sylvia Plath archive is a collage she made in 1960: the central image is President Eisenhower sitting at a desk; included in the collage is a cut-out of a woman in a bathing suit with a bomber plane aimed at her, and the caption “It’s His and Her Time All Over America.” Readers may look in vain for explicit political content in most of Plath’s poems. Her own training as a poet and literature student in the 1950s inclined her to avoid direct speech about such “low” topical matters as the Rosenbergs or, for that matter, fabric choices for the spring collections. Only in a few of the poems from the last years of her life do we see her break free from the constraints of her training to speak more directly about the political, material, and sexual culture around her.
Of course, I never really believed it would happen. Grow old, I mean. I knew it was coming, saw the evidence of it in my friends and relatives, but despite that, I acted as if aging had nothing to do with me. Even having people congratulate me on my seventy-fifth birthday doesn’t sound right to me. Either they or I must have screwed up the count somewhere along the way. Knowing the truth, of course, is better than fooling oneself, but who wants to look truth in the face every morning?
Sometime in the three months since Hugo Chávez was pronounced dead, his favorite television mouthpiece, a broadcaster called Mario Silva, delivered himself of his sorrow regarding Venezuela in the course of a highly private conversation. It was a riveting aria: fifty-three minutes in which Silva told of coup plots, death threats, power struggles within the heart of chavismo. Astonishingly, Mario Silva’s complaint was sung not to a friend or colleague, not to a Venezuelan official or source but to Aramis Palacios, a lieutenant colonel of Cuba’s G2 intelligence directorate, and we know what was said because someone—a spy for the opposition? secret agent Palacios himself?—has made an audio recording of this conversation available to the Venezuelan opposition.