In “The Anger of Exile,” from the March 25 issue of The New York Review, Colm Tóibín discusses two recent novels by writers from Lebanon now living in North America. One of them is Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, set in a Lebanon that is, according to Tóibín, “rendered in luscious, luxuriant detail, with an extraordinary sense of felt life both in the present and in the remembered past, as though Bonnard were an abiding spirit here.” But in Alameddine’s novel, Tóibín writes, “always there is the legacy of war, like gray or black pigment, both in the narrator’s memory and in the very gaps between buildings, the ‘shards of metal, twisted rubble, strips of tile, and broken glass’ that are still ‘scattered across piles of dirt.’”
I am one of a team that has been redesigning the Greek and Roman Galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We’ve finished—and a couple of weeks ago the new display opened to the public. This is nothing on the scale of the new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of course. But, after the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford (also recently “re-hung”), the Fitz has the best collection of classical antiquities in the UK—thanks to generous donations since the mid-nineteenth century from professors and alumni of the University.
I met a friend for lunch the other day at The Morgan Library. In honor of their Jane Austen exhibit, they are serving a Regency lunch. Whenever I hear the word Regency, I think not of Jane Austen, but of Dickens’s Old Mr. Turveydrop, celebrated everywhere for his Deportment, who named his son Prince. I don’t know if Old Mr. Turveydrop would have approved, but we thought it was a delicious Regency lunch—Poached Atlantic Salmon, Fricassee of Macomber Turnips & Mushrooms, Mustard Greens, Baked Apple Cobbler—though what exactly about the menu qualified as Regency is somewhat obscure. The turnips? I have never eaten more delicious turnips. I happily imagined Jane Austen eating delicate, sweet Macomber turnips, too. But at home, after a little on-line research, I came to realize how unlikely it is that she did—Macomber turnips seem to be a cross breed of radishes and rutabagas developed by the two Macomber brothers in Westport, Massachussetts in 1876.
Hitler’s Third Reich produced no great films. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant innovator and superb editor, with an extraordinary gift for visual effects, but I would hesitate to call Triumph of the Will, or even Olympia great films, unless greatness can be confined to technical prowess. Nazi Germany did not have the equivalent of an Eisenstein or Pudovkin, who still managed to create masterpieces out of political propaganda. Perhaps this reflects a difference between National Socialism and Communism, even though Stalin was no less murderous than Hitler. Great work can still emerge from the utopian ideal of the workers’ paradise. It is harder to imagine artistic excellence arising from violent racism. D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist movie The Birth of a Nation is a possible exception to this rule, but this film, too, is more remarkable for its technical innovation than anything else.
A new exhibition of street photography, “Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, brings together work by photographers ranging from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans to Helen Levitt, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee; it also includes paintings by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Richard Pousette-Dart—all of whom were making images during and immediately after World War II. “Abstract Expressionism, film noir, Beat poetry, and the New Journalism are all widely recognized aftershocks of World War II,” writes Lisa Hostetler in the catalog of the exhibition. “It is time to add the ‘psychological gesture in photography’ to the list.” These photographs, with their emphasis on mood and atmosphere, and their exploration of blurred motion, shadows, and solitary figures, are very different from images made before the war.
Although Alvar Aalto first won worldwide attention in the early 1930s as a leading exponent of the International Style—a reductive form of modern architecture proposed as equally applicable anywhere on the planet—his more expressive, site-specific work from the mid-Thirties onward marked him as a regional designer in the best sense, and the quintessential Finnish master builder. In 1989, however, thirteen years after Aalto’s death, his friend and official biographer Göran Schildt revealed Aalto’s rollicking 1943 junket to Germany at the invitation of Albert Speer, Hitler’s court architect-turned-munitions chief, to inspect construction there just as the Final Solution shifted into overdrive. Schildt’s tragicomic account reads like a plot outline for The Three Stooges Go to Hell.
The incoming Ukrainian president will have to turn some attention to history, because the outgoing one has just made a hero of a long-dead Ukrainian fascist. By conferring the highest state honor of “Hero of Ukraine” upon Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) on January 22, Viktor Yushchenko provoked protests from the chief rabbi of Ukraine, the president of Poland, and many of his own citizens. It is no wonder. Bandera aimed to make of Ukraine a one-party fascist dictatorship without national minorities. During World War II, his followers killed many Poles and Jews. Why would President Yushchenko, the leader of the democratic Orange Revolution, wish to rehabilitate such a figure? Bandera, who spent years in Polish and Nazi confinement, and died at the hands of the Soviet KGB, is for some Ukrainians a symbol of the struggle for independence during the twentieth century.
“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. In Britain, the mandarins of New Labour—not satisfied with installing more closed-circuit surveillance cameras than any other democracy—have sought (so far unsuccessfully) to invoke the “war on terror” as an occasion to introduce mandatory identity cards. In France and the Netherlands, artificially stimulated “national debates” on identity are a flimsy cover for political exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment—and a blatant ploy to deflect economic anxiety onto minority targets. In Italy, the politics of identity were reduced in December 2009 to house-to-house searches in the Brescia region for unwanted dark faces as the municipality shamelessly promised a “white Christmas.”
A strange little book came in the mail the other day. It’s called transcript and is published by the admirable Dalkey Archive Press. Translated from the German by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling, its author, Heimrad Bäcker (1925-2003), was unknown to me. He was an Austrian book editor, photographer and concrete poet who as a teenager joined the Nazi party and became an active member in the regional leadership of the Hitler Youth. At a first glance, his book looks like a collection of verbal scraps of uncertain origin, some of which have the appearance of avant-garde poetry, but on examination it turns out to be something entirely different. Bäcker’s “poems” consist of excerpts from documents by Holocaust planners, perpetrators, and victims.
Iran’s civilian research reactor in Tehran, the Tehran Research Reactor, has been much in the news lately. It has an interesting past and perhaps an interesting future. In March of 1974 the Shah of Iran declared that Iran’s goal would be the construction of some twenty power reactors to provide electricity for the country. The Tehran reactor, known as the TRR, was to be used for training students. There is little doubt that the Shah’s goal was to make nuclear weapons. Indeed, after he was overthrown in 1979, the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who said he believed that nuclear weapons were un-Islamic, dismantled most of the program. One of the survivors was the TRR. In recent weeks, Iran has claimed that its existence—and need for nuclear fuel—justifies pursuing uranium enrichment to higher levels, ostensibly for peaceful use. Many have doubted that claim, and now the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has given official weight to those doubts. In its new report, the IAEA for the first time states outright what I outlined in November, that Iran’s enrichment activities may be related to “the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” To understand why, it is worth considering the history of the TRR.