Great Weekend Reads
This weekend: a novel of confused religion, one man looks out for fires in the American West, how Hollywood went mad on communism, and the lessons from Hezbollah's wars.
A Faith Without Boundaries
In a time when it is fashionable to define ourselves by identity, Ludmilla Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a refreshing affirmation of the beauty of hybridity. Though I had not heard of her before now, Ulitskaya is Russia's bestselling novelist; Daniel Stein had already sold over 2 million copies before being translated into English, and is the winner of Russia's Best Book Award. Ulitskaya is the author of 14 books, including The Farewell Party, Medea and Her Children, and Sonechka, and she has also scooped up the Russian National Literary Prize, the Russian Booker Prize, the Penne Literary Prize, and the Medici Award, not to mention being a laureate for the Simone de Beauvoir Prize. Her immense popularity in Europe, juxtaposed with her relative obscurity in North America, highlights the paucity of contemporary Russian literature being published in the U.S. Hopefully, Arch Tait's translation of Ulitskaya's innovative Daniel Stein, Interpreter reverses this trend.
The title defines her protagonist as an interpreter, but the central idea of the book is that his identity cannot be defined. Based on the real life of Oswald Rufeisen, Daniel is born a Polish Jew who, through a series of "miracles," escapes the Holocaust to become a Catholic priest in Haifa, Israel. He is still Jewish to Nazis (and most everyone else), but not to Israelis. The issue is the difference between religion and ethnicity. Daniel is ethnically Jewish, his nationality is Jewish—he is insistent on this point, but also that he is a Jewish Christian. A Jewish Catholic priest in the Holy Land? To many this seems crazy, but for Daniel this makes perfect sense. Since Jesus was Jewish, Daniel believes that only by performing the Christian sacraments in Hebrew can one be a true Christian.
He forms a congregation that does just this, modeled on the early Nazarene church under the leadership of Jesus' brother James, when there was not much distinction between Jews and Christians, and when Christianity was more like a "Jewish Protestantism."
Daniel asks why people should seek Jesus "in church doctrines which appeared 1,000 years after his death?" He points out that the similarities between the early church and Israeli kibbutzers, Soviet communists, the Druze, and Hassidism, blending the identities by which people divide and define themselves.
As the "Interpreter" of the title suggests, the mutability of language also plays a major role in Ulitskaya's message. Daniel is known for being a builder of bridges between people who do not understand each other, due to his talent of speaking many languages. He was able to escape the Jewish ghetto because he spoke Polish without a Yiddish accent. He survived by serving as a translator for the Gestapo, which allowed him to organize the escape of 300 Jews, some of whom become characters of the novel. Daniel describes the Holocaust as an "opposite miracle" where "the supreme laws of life were being violated and a supernatural evil was being perpetrated which ran counter to the fundamental order of the world."
It is during the Holocaust, hiding in a nunnery, when Daniel finds faith in Jesus. He becomes Christian because, unlike Moses, Jesus places Love over Law. Faith, the "personal secret of each one of us," is the meat of the issue; Daniel is supremely interested not in what Jesus preached but "what he believed in." Daniel is an unusual priest, however, as he gives rides to Hassids on his Vespa and calls himself a "great connoisseur of women." His controversial mission is to create a Christian union of all denominations for communal prayer. Rather than support the two state proposal, he believes only a joint Jewish-Arab state will survive because the "borders are not territorial but in the recesses of people's minds."
The subtitle of the book is "a novel in documents." Accordingly, Daniel's story is told through diaries, recorded conversations, interviews, lectures, letters, archives, and postcards. These do not appear in chronological order, but jump around from 1948 to 2006 to 1971, from Moscow to Boston to Friedburg. The novel is meticulously researched, providing sketches of the historical development of Christianity and its separation from Judaism, as well as ancient and modern Israeli history. It becomes a collage about a man who "lived in the presence of God," a man who "bridged the unbridgeable gulf between Judaism and Christianity with his personality." Once Daniel dies, this bridge dissolves. Identities are reestablished according to gender, nationality, citizenship, educational level, professional affiliation, political affiliation, religion, and the like. To Daniel, these divisions of identity are the point from which all human problems arise.
The one line that summarizes the whole of the book is spoken by an ancient woman who is the only remaining Jew in Daniel's native Polish town. She says: "I wish more people were good and that there were no wars, that's what I have to say to you." Ulitskaya's intriguing book ultimately says that if we all acted more like Daniel Stein, that woman's wish would come true.
— Randy Rosenthal, Contributor
Among the Fires
There's a lovely simplicity to the job Philip Connors describes in his lyrical new book, Fire Season. Perched atop a lookout tower in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, he scans the horizon for smoke, and when he sees some, he radios in its location. Spanning from April to August, the book is a lovely, slow-paced, and meditative account of one season of many that Connors has spent working as a fire lookout.
The key question underlying the book is the role of fire in nature, and whether or not and to what extent it should be controlled. While traditional thinking dictated that all fires should be extinguished as if an enemy on a battlefield, more modern thought allows some fires to take their natural course and burn. The shift began in the 1970s. "Think of fire as an endangered species," Connors writes, "which, after its nearly century-long absence, we're attempting to restore to a land that evolved with its imprimatur."
Connors provides such a clear-eyed look at his job in the woods, the role of fire, and the history of wilderness preservation in the United States that the book rises from what could have been simply a journal-like account of his time on the job and instead becomes a thoughtful, historically minded narrative that balances Connors' own experiences with context from American history. (There's a clear element of romanticism or spiritualism to the book, too: Describing his mountaintop tower, he writes, "in my more poetical moods I think of it as my mountain minaret, where I call myself to secular prayer.")
The most significant historical figure in the book is Aldo Leopold, known to most modern readers as the author of A Sand County Almanac, but important to Connors' story because it was Leopold who pushed to have the Gila Wilderness created: an area with no roads, 755,000 acres in size, demarcated officially in 1922. "If country can be thought of as a text, then the Gila ought to be considered the first rough draft of the wilderness prospect in America," Connors writes. And he ably explores the historical tensions between those who saw American forests as resources to be used and conservationists, like John Muir, who "advocated preserving wilderness both for its own sake and as a natural cathedral for the human spirit, where man could come face-to-face with higher values."
Importantly, Connors' examination of the issue of wilderness comes from a modern and thus complex viewpoint; he points out not only how the Gila Wilderness has changed since it was first set aside, but also references "the literature of wilderness deconstructionalists," who would argue, as Connors describes it, that "[b]y encircling wilderness on a map, we actually extended our dominion over it—subdued it for the last time, as it were, by barring it from settlement and dictating the terms of its use or non-use." (The writer who he seems to be engaging here, though he goes unnamed, is William Cronon, whose essay "The Trouble With Wilderness" makes exactly that point.) Connors concludes that America's relationship with wilderness is "an unfinished project." But he then circles back to the original advocate for the creation of the Gila Wilderness, noting that "these criticisms never lead to a better idea than the one hammered out by Leopold: that certain samples of our natural heritage should remain … beyond the reach of the bulldozer and the backhoe."
There's much more to the book, including a wonderful look, drawing on an unpublished journal, of Jack Kerouac's experience as a fire lookout back in 1956. But perhaps the truest joy of Fire Season is the evocative language Connors uses to capture the natural world. A nearby lightning strike he describes as "a livid filament." In June, he writes, "The wind dies, bees hover outside the open tower windows, the cinquefoil blooms butter yellow in the meadow." It's enough to make any city dweller run for the hills, for this is modern nature writing at its very finest.
— Rob Verger, Reporter, Newsweek/The Daily Beast
Snatched by Phantoms
Early in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel's anxious 1956 film, a resident of a stricken California suburb frets that her husband has been replaced by an impostor. Not yet wise to the fact that the babbling townie is actually on to something, Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) offers some soothing words. "Even these days," he says, "it isn't as easy to go crazy as you might think."
But within 15 minutes of screen time, the good doctor is half-bonkers himself—an understandable transformation, given that he's just seen his neighbor's clone spread supine in the family rec room. In a community overtaken by "pod people," Miles is the last man standing against the evil, paranoia, and folly of post-World War II America—and in this sense, he's the patron saint of two intensely intelligent new books about the films of the day.
Of the pair—J. Hoberman's An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War and Barry Keith Grant's Invasion of the Body Snatchers—Hoberman's is the big boy, a fact-rich, exhaustively investigated, stylishly written work of journalistic obsession.
The second in the Village Voice critic's planned trilogy on the post-war intersection of movies, politics, and culture, Phantoms covers the decade from 1946-56. Co-starring the period's most famous performers, of course, but also Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, and Robert Oppenheimer, the book depicts an industry that went through dozens of permutations as it tried to soothe a rattled public while simultaneously appeasing Capitol Hill's angry demagogues.
It seems that everyone in the business—and some with only tangential ties to it—was expected to help craft pictures about commies or the Bomb. Near the end of 1946, Hoberman writes, "fresh-faced Donna Reed"—just 25 at the time—"discovered that Dr. Edward Tompkins, her handsome young high-school science teacher back in Iowa, had spent the war working at the top-secret government facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee." So the actress, on the eve of her appearance in It's a Wonderful Life, contacted him, the first step in a process that led to the release, the following year, of MGM's Hiroshima-inspired The Beginning or the End.
Around the same time, the not-so-fresh-faced Ayn Rand was asked to provide producer Hal Wallis with a few ideas on the subject. "Rand presents him with a confidential four-thousand-word-plus paper, 'An Analysis of the Proper Approach to a Picture on the Atomic Bomb,'" Hoberman writes, in which she argues: " The whole history of the atomic bomb is an eloquent example of, argument for and tribute to free enterprise." (The italics are Hoberman's, but the words would be shocking in any typeface.)
The movie business' blacklisting of suspected and admitted communists, which started in late 1947, found some stars using unusual methods to distance themselves from members of the banished Hollywood Ten (Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk and others). In December of that year, for instance, the New York Daily Mirror ran what Hoberman describes as Humphrey Bogart's "prose poem" on the matter. Bogie's verse took pains to point out what he was "not" ("a communist sympathizer") and the places in which readers wouldn't see his name ("on any communist front organization nor as a sponsor of anything communistic").
Bogart's verse evidently didn't persuade everyone in the industry. In 1949 his wife Lauren Bacall was slated to star alongside Gary Cooper in the adaptation of Rand's The Fountainhead. Yet, Hoberman writes, "her prominent association with the Committee for the First Amendment"—the group formed to show its backing of the Hollywood Ten—"made her anathema to red-hunters." Patricia Neal got the part instead.
With citizens worried about wars both real (American boys were now dying in Korea) and theoretical (the feared showdown with the Soviets), it was sometimes tough to tell good guys from bad on the big screen. Hoberman notes that according to an interview he gave some time after the fact, no less an authority on filmmaking and patriotism than John Wayne considered the 1952 western High Noon "the most un-American thing I've seen in my whole life." And yet, Hoberman adds, "According to White House projectionist logs, High Noon ranks as the movie most requested by American presidents."
Hoping to beat back his accusers, Elia Kazan infamously outed a number of Hollywood communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Lest anyone doubt that his decision colored his view of the industry and the world, Hoberman writes that after his HUAC testimony, "Kazan would direct the six features on which his reputation rests: On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and Splendor in the Grass. All feature some form of betrayal."
The fallout from the committee's hearings would be seen on the screen throughout the decade. As Hoberman points out, the screenplay for Invasion of the Body Snatchers came from none other than "ex-communist HUAC informer Richard Collins…who had told HUAC (in 1951) that his thousands of hours of work for the Communist Party during World War II turned him into a 'trained zombie.'"
The zombies in Body Snatchers come from giant seed pods, which contain brainwashed clones that gestate until they're ready to replace their freethinking human counterparts. Grant calls the Don Siegel-directed movie "the first postwar horror film to locate the monstrous in the normal, four years before Psycho."
Grant's single-film study—like other entries in the British Film Institute's Film Classics series, it shares its title with the movie under discussion—offers a deep analysis that might serve as supplementary reading to Hoberman's more expansive work. He misses nothing. Grant argues, for example, that it's important to take note of the black-and-white Body Snatchers' gritty, almost cheap, feel: "The film's very rejection of the bloated production values of Hollywood's big pictures is consistent with its critique of contemporary American society as empty and bland on the inside."
And he maintains that the movie is improbably urgent, given that "after the experiences of 9/11 and the government's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, American viewers are likely to be even more skeptical of the government's ability to contain the threat of the pods because of the massive scale of military and civil response that would be required."
Depending upon one's political leanings, Hoberman says, Body Snatchers can be viewed as "either a drama of communist subversion or a parable of suburban conformity." In which case, it's as timely as ever—a movie that America can love and hate with both halves of its politically polarized heart.
— Kevin Canfield, Contributor
The Hezbollah Complex
Michael Totten knows that the Lebanese, custodians of a vibrant, cosmopolitan, and democratic Arab country, confront a painful dilemma. Should they decide to disarm Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim militia in their midst, and integrate it into the state, the country would be plunged into civil strife. Yet if the Lebanese continue to grant Hezbollah the free rein it demands as an extra-state politico-military force, the next time the self-proclaimed "Party of God" provokes Israel, the Jewish state will certainly retaliate against Lebanon as a whole.
Totten, a journalist, explores this and other threats to Lebanon's precarious stability in The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel. His book's greatest virtue is its examination of what Hezbollah's recently expanded political role in Lebanon means for the Lebanese. There are plenty of books on Hezbollah itself, which was created by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Shiites in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but they rarely explore the socio-political ramifications of the party's increasing influence in Lebanese life.
Totten doesn't just probe the fears of Sunnis and many Christians in the face of Hezbollah's rising prominence. He recognizes the immense popularity the party enjoys among Shiites, and the unlikelihood that this will change any time soon. "Supporting Hezbollah as a deterrent was perfectly logical," Totten explains of the party's brainwashed supporters, "if you believed Israelis wanted to invade Lebanon so they could expand their borders, steal Lebanon's water, or for some other nefarious purpose." Ultimately, The Road to Fatima Gate paints a grim but realistic portrait of Lebanon's Hezbollah-generated woes, even if it overextends itself here and there, such as when Totten claims that another war between Hezbollah and Israel is inevitable.
Fatima Gate is a (closed) border crossing between Lebanon and Israel. Totten visited the area while living in Lebanon. He moved to the land of the cedars in 2005, when mass demonstrations and international pressure following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri forced Syria to withdraw its army from the country. That was the Beirut Spring. It didn't last long, because Hezbollah immediately sought to stymie any attempt to steer Lebanon away from the Iran-Syria axis. In fact, Hezbollah launched an unprovoked attack on Israel in 2006 that led to a month-long war, and ignited fears that Iran was now sitting on Israel's northern border.
Unlike other Western journalists, Totten does not come away awed by Hezbollah's performance in that war. "The Arab bar for military victory had been set low for decades," he points out. Totten's antipathy toward Hezbollah at times leads him to accuse the party of having used human shields during the 2006 war, despite reports to the contrary by international journalists and human rights groups. But in his discussion of Hezbollah's tactics in the Christian village of Ain Ebel, he brings fresh information—gleaned from interviews with local residents—to bear on the subject; together with older accounts of events in the village, a picture emerges of Hezbollah using residents as human shields.
Occasionally, Totten slides into exaggeration. "After temporarily freeing itself from Syrian overlordship," he writes of Lebanon in 2005, "it had been effectively reconquered by proxy." But Hezbollah has not conquered Lebanon. In fact, its leadership covets just enough power to prevent the country from curtailing the party's freedom of action and breaking away from the Iran-Syria axis. Hezbollah knows that taking over Lebanon—while feasible militarily—would be political suicide.
Nevertheless, Lebanon's future—at least in the short term—looks pretty bleak. Echoing Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, Totten argues that a permanent solution to Lebanon's Hezbollah predicament lies in Tehran. The Iranians, after all, finance and arm Hezbollah, with Syria functioning as a conduit for such services. If the repressive Iranian regime, which is despised by its people, is eventually toppled, that could mean the beginning of the end of Hezbollah. But until that happens, don't expect much good news out of Lebanon.
— Rayyan Al-Shawaf, Contributor