There seems to be a nearly universal agreement that the Costa Concordia, the gigantic cruise ship that lies wrecked at an 80 degree angle just off the Tuscan island of Giglio, somehow embodies the very essence of Italy, despite the fact that Aristotle would have recognized its story as a perfect Greek tragedy: a man, no better or worse than most of us, makes a mistake and thereby unleashes a cataclysm, and we look on the resultant disaster with a cathartic mix of pity and fear. But the hubris of captain Francesco Schettino (now under house arrest) has struck many Italians as a distinctively home-grown kind of hubris, and catharsis is not a sensation that anyone can feel when so many souls are still unaccounted for.
On January 11, an Iranian nuclear scientist named Mostafa Ahmdi Roshan was assassinated by the detonation of a magnetized bomb attached to his car in Tehran. The Iranian government has blamed the Israelis and the United States and there has been a call for revenge. But even more important than this disturbing attack may be what we are now learning about the current state of Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians are now able to produce their own scientists and engineers rather than having them trained elsewhere. They also claim they have enough enrichment capacity themselves to produce what they need. Where does that leave us?
If there is a problem with the novel, and I’m agreed that there is, it is not because it doesn’t participate in modern technology, can’t talk about it or isn’t involved with it; I can download in seconds on my Kindle a novel made up entirely of emails or text messages. Perhaps the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.
A number of years ago I bought Halliwell’s Film Guide to inform myself about old movies shown on TV and available in video stores. Occasionally, however, when I found it lying around, I’d open the Guide at random and start reading, usually attracted by the name of the film, something irresistible like Calling Doctor Death, Isle of Forgotten Sins, Naked Alibi, or Prudence and the Pill, about a girl who “borrows her mother’s contraceptives pills and replaces them with aspirin, causing no end of complication.” One day it dawned on me that out of the twelve to fifteen movies listed on every page of the Guide, there was at least one I had seen and more often several. Like millions of others who grew up in 1940s, I had spent a good part of my life seeing hundreds and hundreds of movies, everything from genuine masterpieces of the cinema to worthless trash.
Christa Wolf belonged to the generation in which I also count myself. We were stamped by National Socialism and the late—too late—realization of all the crimes committed by Germans in the span of just twelve years. Ever since, the act of writing has demanded interpreting the traces that remain.
The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered by a stream that passes under a stone overhang just a few inches above the water. Visitors must lie flat in a shallow boat as it is pulled by wires under the outcrop. Rock whizzes by a couple of inches in front of your face and suddenly you are there, in the earth’s womb, where people have come for millennia to meditate. In November, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping, probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong, a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion.
Among the impenetrable mysteries of modern life is how Meryl Streep can be universally regarded as the greatest dramatic film actress of our time. In my opinion, Streep is easily at her best as a comedienne, not in the high-serious roles she has favored. Now we have the 62-year-old Streep in what many critics deem the crowning achievement of her storied 35-year Hollywood career, as Margaret Thatcher in the starring role of Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady. But when I watched this strange tour de force of Important Acting, I was uncertain whether I was witnessing a tragedy or a farce.
The Roche-Wainwright-McGarrigle intertwinings comprise a musical family the sprawling brilliance of which has not been experienced perhaps since—well, we wonʼt say the Lizst-Wagners—but at least the Carter-Cashes. The extended family oeuvre, though varied, often has a conversational, smart-kids-at-summer-camp quality that is both folky and jokey. The Rochesʼ own wistful, clever songs are written with a sweet street spontaneity and prosody, and their clear, pure voices are like a barbershop trio of sassy angels. But most often they sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.
In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China. In over forty years of writing about China, I have been subjected to many forms of pressure. But this has never happened. Surely everything in my article is well known in Beijing, especially to the tiny number of English-reading urban people who buy Newsweek. What had I said that attracted the attention of the official shredder?
Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s. The archive included a collection of manila envelopes, around six by ten inches, stuffed with folded sheets of thin paper covered with single-spaced typing: the notes the psychiatrist made after seeing patients (many of them fellow émigrés) in his office. As I studied the sheets with their inky typewriting and 60-year-old paper clips holding them together and leaving rust marks on the surface, my collagist’s imagination began to stir. I began to “see” some version of the collages on view here.