This Week’s Hot Reads

This Week’s Hot Reads: ‘The Trace,’ ‘Essays After Eighty,’ ‘Artists Under Hitler’

A vision quest gone wrong, a poet laurate looks back on life, and an academic reconsidering of Modernism in Nazi Germany. By Nicholas Mancusi

01.26.15 10:30 AM ET

The Trace
By Forrest Gander
New Directions, 240 pp, $22.95

Dale and Hoa, the couple whose road trip across the southern border into Mexico is the focus of poet Forrest Gander’s new novel “The Trace,” are not exactly traveling for pleasure. True, they are ostensibly retracing the rumored steps of Ambrose Bierce, the American man of letters who at the age of 71, and knowing not a word of Spanish, stepped across the border into Mexico with the goal of interviewing Pancho Villa, and was never heard from again. (The “trace” of title is either the wandering path that Dale and Hoa revisit, or the trace without which Bierce disappeared forever.) But they are really attempting to exorcise tension that exists between them surrounding an unnamed accident that befell their only son, Declan. Murderous Mexican narcos and car trouble in the least convenient place imaginable, the middle of the sweltering desert, ensure that this is one vacation that they would very soon like to forget. Gander’s prose is extraordinarily corporeal, bound to the actions of his characters’ bodies as they sweat, cry, run, lift heavy objects and perform their bodily functions, and his interest in the poetry of the body borders on the clinical; a scene in which the lead narco removes the flesh of a deceased victim’s face in order to affix it to a soccer ball is particularly horrifying given the dispassionate detail with which it is described. This vision-quest gone wrong makes for riveting reading.

Essays After Eighty
By Donald Hall
HMH, 144pp, $22

Perhaps it is a ghastly or impolite thought, but if we are being terribly honest with ourselves, there is something selfishly comforting about the fact that the minds of the elderly often degrade along with the body, in a slow slide that begins years before death. The more we are able to differentiate ourselves from the most-likely-soon-to-die, the more we are able to reinforce our own silly but cherished intuitions that death is something that only happens to beings who are very much unlike ourselves, and that we are therefore safe, for now.  The inverse of this idea, however, is that to read beautiful and perfectly self-aware observations proffered by a mind that’s well on its way to 90 years of observing is a particularly bracing exercise. So it goes in Donald Hall’s “Essays After 80,” a new book of brief but deeply affecting personal essays from the former poet laureate and recipient of the National Medal of Arts. In these pages, Hall looks back at the trials of his life, various loves and divorces and deaths and machinations of his thoroughly literary existence, with the a fond distance, as if reminiscing with an old friend toward the end of a pleasant evening. His prose is spare, all the more devastating for his simplicity. Here he speaks of an ex-wife: “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy they have not ended. Kirby died of cancer in 2008 when she was 76. I survive into my eighties, writing, and oddly cheerful, although disabled and largely alone. There is only one road.” Hall shows us how much holy, mysterious weight can be carried by a single sentence, such as “The marriage lasted fifteen years, ending in 1967.” For those of us for whom old age is still largely an abstraction, a sentence like that is barely coherent. But it does hint towards how much we have yet to learn about life. Could this business of living and dying be quite as simple as it seems?

 

Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany
By Jonathan Petropoulos
Yale University Press, 424 pps, $40

In the first paragraph of the preface to Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany, Professor Jonathan Petropoulos makes it known that this book will not be a dusty historical recitation or art survey: “Conventional wisdom insists that any genuinely interesting [mid-century German] art was rooted in the modernism of the Weimar Republic, while Nazi culture, with its rigidity and monumentality, was bad. This view is both course and wrong.” In addressing the ten artists that Petropoulos goes on to discuss, among them Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss, Leni Riefenstahl, and Albert Speer, he make a rigorous and fascinating argument for more complexity in the way in which we view the art that was generated under Hitler’s regime, and the way in which the world chose to separate the good from the bad while sorting through the post-war rubble. Do not be confused: this is in no way a defense of the frequently laughable art that the Nazis chose as exemplary. But in inviting us to consider the political forces and considerations that went in to these artists’ decisions to remain in Germany, Petropoulos has increased the knowledge and accuracy with which we can approach the issue, while still maintaining a robust moral condemnation of that which must be condemned.