Friday, December 26, 2014

Sam Spade in the S.S.

George Orwell used to speak of "good bad books" and occasionally he argued they were better indices of the cultural moment than anything written by more celebrated authors.  In other words, the Raffles crime novels by E.W. Hornung revealed more about the public's attitude toward right and wrong during the 1930s than any of the works of Thomas Mann.

This notion has occurred to me more than once as I've enjoyed my way through Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series.  On one level Gunther is a standard-issue pulp gumshoe: former cop, current PI, divorced, remorseful, cynical.  He's straight out of the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett-Ross McDonald playbook.

The only change is the setting.  Bernie's a good man in the Third Reich.  Along the way he finds himself working with the likes of Heydrich, Himmler, Eichmann and Mengele.  And--like all good detectives in the noir genre--he struggles to follow the semblance of a moral code in a thoroughly corrupt society.  His Poisonville just happens to be an evil place on steroids. 

It's a great conceit and one wonders why someone didn't think of it earlier.  Sure, Martin Cruz Smith worked similar ground in his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, Polar Star, Stalin's Ghost).  I don't know, though.  Nazis trump Commies as exemplars of evil in so many ways.  Kerr's Gunther has even begun to spawn imitators.  Luke McCallin is currently on book two of his Gregor Reinhardt series. Like Gunther, Reinhardt's another ex-cop from Berlin's Kripo (Kriminal Polizei) who finds himself trapped on the wrong side of Word War II.

And this is where Orwell's notion of cultural trends in popular literature comes in.  Chances are the public might not have gone for Sam Spade in the S.S. before now, even if he hit all of the appropriate anti-Nazi notes.  Twenty years ago, for example, Joseph Vilsmaier's film Stalingrad took a sympathetic look at German soldiers on the Russian front, but it was not enthusiastically distributed outside of Germany. I did manage to see the film and it felt odd to be asked to empathize with Wehrmacht grunts, especially if you had any historical awareness of what actually happened on the Russian front.  It was just difficult for me to separate the soldiers from the system for which they fought.

More recently German public television aired Generation War, a mini-series tracing the lives of five friends in war-time Germany.  The German title was "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" (Our Mothers, Our Fathers).  The series caught some flack for its portrayal of Nazis as the "others" and the young, attractive Germans in the series as simply victims of their times.  Some critics suggested that "putting five sympathetic young protagonists into a harrowing story just offers the war generation a fresh bunch of excuses."  

My question is why has it become suddenly more palatable to write sympathetically about Germans living under the Nazi regime?  Why are we interested in them?  Partly, I suppose, it's just the passage of time.  World War Two's shadow on the culture is passing.  Nuremberg, the camps, the Eichmann trial are just pictures on a page now and subject to reinterpretation and reintegration into fiction. 

One worries, however, that something else is going on in the culture.  Is there a need in the age of Guantanamo, Abu Graib and torture-justifying legal sophistry to find more subtle moral distinctions for those swept up in evil systems?  Do we now find ourselves in need of some heroes on the wrong side of the moral divide?  I don't know. Maybe I'm letting my inner-English major get a little off-the-leash here and making more out of something than it merits.

In any case, Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels certainly fulfill Orwell's definition of "good-bad" books.  They are well-wrought popular entertainments, but maybe, too, their popularity also says something uncomortable about us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Anxious Hand Off

Anyone who's taught for a while knows that students are anxious about handing in their assignments.  They often walk into the classroom and immediately want to give it to you.  You had planned to ask for the papers at the end of the period (or to let the students share their work with each other). 

But no. 

There they are standing directly in front of you and determined to be rid of the awful thing at the earliest conceivable moment.  I've never understood this behavior.  Whenever I ask them about it, they tell me it's just a relief for the work to be out of their hands.  It's done, off the to-do list.  No longer their problem.  That makes a certain sense, I guess.

Now that I've switched to on-line grading, of course, this anxious little ritual has become more complex and distressing for them.  They must now upload their assignment to the course management system, fretting all the while that something may go wonky.  Indeed, they sometimes get so stressed that they upload it again, and maybe once more just to be sure.  I have students who submit things four or five times (like an OCD sufferer who has to keep checking a door lock).  Then they send an email asking me if  I received the paper (and a second one if I don't respond within 30 minutes or less). These emails, of course, also include an attached PDF of the paper "just in case."

Compounding this is that our course management system does occasionally get wonky.  It balks at Word Perfect documents and don't even think about trying to upload from a Mac.  So now we have to add detailed caveats, codicils, tech specs and submission guidelines to our syllabi in places where we used to list only the due date. 

Sometimes I dream about teaching a course a la the 1950s.  No tech.  Skirts, jackets and ties would be required.  Everyone would be addressed in class as Mr. Baker, Miss Smith.  Students would type their theme papers on manual typewriters.  And at the final, I would simply pass out the Blue Books.

If nothing else it would help to alleviate their stress.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Ends

I am not sure why but the reading I do over holiday break is always the most delicious.  On any given break I generally devour six or seven titles.  Maybe it's because the weather is cold and fishing out of the question.  Maybe it's just the relief from grading, but every year I look forward to this four week mid-winter book binge.  Part of its attraction is the idea of resuming my own secret reading life. 

Several years ago I read an essay by the novelist Jonathan Franzen.  As someone who derives his living from readers, he had long worried about the demise of a reading public. By chance, however, he met a sociology professor who for years had been studying people's reading habits.  Whenever this professor spotted people in public reading serious literature, she interviewed them on how they became a reader. Turns out devoted readers fall into two groups. The first grew up in households where reading was the norm. The parents read, encouraged the kids to read, and the house was often stuffed with books and talk about books.

The second group, greatly smaller in number, was different.  Here kids became secret readers. They didn't grow up in reading families, but they discovered reading as a form of escape. They often hid how much they were reading from their parents and friends, but they read intensely and with devotion. These kids tended to be more socially-isolated and introverted. Books were a way to connect to the larger world without the awkwardness of social exchange.

The social environment for this second group of readers didn't seem to matter or have any effect on their becoming readers. These people were going to read no matter what. Franzen concluded from this that there will always be some small, hardcore group of people who will read despite what happens.

Upon reading this essay I recognized myself as part of this smaller, hardcore secret group.  I was not raised in a literary home.  My father never read anything but the want-ads and my mother's tastes ran to bodice-rippers (Love’s Sweet Savage Surrender, Forbidden Passion in Paradise).  Even so, I don’t think I ever hid my reading as a kid.  I was neither encouraged nor dissuaded.  Hell, no one paid enough attention to what I was doing to notice.  I just read what I wanted.  I read idiosyncratically.  I read good stuff, I read trash.  One thing would lead to the next.  There was no plan.
I recall reading Paul Brinkman’s The Great Escape in the fifth grade (probably because I liked the movie) and it led me to read more books about prison breaks: The Count of Monte Cristo, Papillon, The  Wooden Horse, a biography of Harriet Tubman.  Around the age of 13, I got interested in the movie actor Erroll Flynn for some reason and read his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which led me to read several trashy biographies of Flynn, one claiming he was Nazi spy. 

Early in his life Flynn had been a sailor in the South Pacific and somehow this led me to reading Sterling Hayden’s rather surprisingly good novel Voyage and then to Hayden’s autobiography (also good).  Hayden mentioned how important Conrad had been to him, so off I went on a Conrad binge.  One of Conrad’s short stories pointed me toward Tolstoy, whom I swallowed whole when I was 19 or 20.  Tolstoy led me to Chekov and Chekov into an interest in the Moscow Art Theater and the works of Stanislavsky...

I didn’t start college until I was 23, so from the age of five I had been simply wandering aimlessly from interest to interest, author to author.  I never discussed books.  I just read them indiscriminately.  It was something I did on my own, in private, in secret, with no direction or purpose. 

And every year, after the grades are turned in, the last paper read and the last email sent, I like to get back to this original project.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

B.C. and A.D.

A colleague stopped by this morning and told me that his son, a recent grad, had come home over the weekend filled with some post-graduation blues.  I know this young man only slightly (mostly from his father's intermittent updates), but I can certainly empathize with his feelings about his new grind.  Like a lot of recent grads, he may just now be noticing that there's a difference between the intensity and drama of college and 'real life' (a phrase I very much detest).

Indeed, the term real life is almost always used to contrast serious, everyday work with the slap-and tickle un-seriousness of academic life.  My own take is that a great deal of so-called real life is filled with boredom, empty routine and petty annoyance, a point David Foster-Wallace made several years ago in his graduation address at Kenyon CollegeFoster-Wallace evoked the future for the happy grads:

...let's say it's an average adult day and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white collar college-graduate job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want to do is go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all over again.  But then you remember that there's no food at home--you haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job--and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket.   

It's the end of the day and the traffic is very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store is hideously, fluorescently lit and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be... [but] eventually you get your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end of the day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.  Which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take out your fury on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness...

Well, you get the idea.  This is what a lot of real life is. Day-in, day-out, and year after year.  It certainly lacks the youthful drama and intensity (not to mention the dating prospects) found in the undergraduate years my students can’t wait to put behind them.  What’s their bloody hurry, I wonder.  Sure, tuition is expensive and college has its own ritualized annoyances, but come on.  The real world isn't going anywhere and much of it won't really seem like living. 
Ask middle-aged people with degrees to compare their real life to their undergrad years, and it's real life that will suffer by comparison.  Most would relish the chance to go back to college.  Maybe this time they would appreciate what a gift it is to be in a place where people are asked to think and wrestle with ideas, to live once again with a 21-year-old's sense of future possible selves.  I don't know.  Maybe you can't really appreciate what it means to have a world all before you until you have "with wand'ring steps and slow" made your solitary way out of Eden.   Even I have caught myself thinking that I would love to go back to school if I ever get done with this teaching gig.

There’s an old academic joke that life can be divided into two parts: B.C. and A.D. (i.e., before commencement and all downhill). 
Funny but also a little true.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...