Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sarkozy and Sarcasms

“Ever since he married a flapper, he’s become not simply American, but Fitzgeraldian,” notes Roland Jaccard apropos the French president he finds almost Gatsbyesque. Jaccard the café nihilist, whose work appeared in Absinthe 11, reports that he elicits, when sympathizing with Sarkozy, the pity of friends less appalled by the president’s politics than his poor taste and flouting of French tradition.

Madame Bruni-Sarkozy, however, won Jaccard’s heart at a party by being able to recite Dorothy Parker. Jaccard never quite goes so far as to say in Sex and Sarcasms, his most recent collection of feuilletons, that her voice is full of money, but does provide examples of her blithe charm: “They all say that what happened between Nicolas and me was too fast, but they’re wrong: it wasn’t fast, it was instantaneous. So all in all, it was fairly slow for us.” Or “Are you always waiting, like I am, for the longest day of the year, only to miss it when it comes? Do you do that too?”

In another sketch Jaccard notes that we are, “in our heart of hearts, fascinated by swindlers and dictators, but shrink from admitting it. Only a scoundrel practices a realpolitik of feelings.” Jaccard would be honored, I think, to be considered such a scoundrel.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009



Sudden inspiration strikes midway over the Atlantic in an SAS jumbo jet bound for Copenhagen, and I am hunched over the fold-down table in my aisle seat, scribbling away at a love story – I have just had the good fortune to spend some time with a lovely woman and such are my proclivities that I have to make a story out of it. At just the moment in the story when boy is about to get girl, something slams into my face and knocks off my glasses, stunning me. I think something must have fallen out of the overhead bin, but realize then it was another passenger, a man who had been walking along the aisle, got just abreast of me and collapsed like a ton of bricks.

After finding my glasses, not broken fortunately, and noting that a goose egg is growing out of my forehead, I look around and see a body lying in the aisle, looking quite dead. A man, in his forties perhaps.

Three men converge on the body from three different directions. I learn that they are Danish doctors who happened to be on the plane, and they set to work on him at once, lifting his legs to get the blood flow back in his head, taking his blood pressure, reviving him. Soon he is up on his elbows, telling that he had felt nauseated and was on his way to the toilet when suddenly he blacked out, next thing he knew he was on his back in the aisle. His blood pressure is 100 over 70, too low for comfort, and when he tries to rise he grows dizzy. The doctor nearest me – a man of forty perhaps, an oncologist I heard him say, tells the man to remain lying down. It is good to see how attentive the doctors are, how concerned to do what they can for the man. I know from experience in an earlier professional life that doctors who intervene in such aircraft incidents are not only rarely rewarded, but even risk legal suits. But the sue-your-ass-off mania has not yet hit Scandinavia.

A stewardess appears and tells the one doctor that the captain has made available his sleeping quarters, but because the patient is still not able to rise without dizziness, he must scuttle crablike on his bottom, propelling himself with the palms of his hands and bottoms of his feet to the front of the plane. I am given an ice pack for my goose egg and lean back in my seat, thinking about how suddenly and unexpectedly things sometimes happen, how vulnerable we are, how half the time we don’t even see it coming.

I recall an incident some forty-five years ago when I was working as a runner in the Wall Street area. In the crowded morning rush hour just as I got off the train at Bowling Green, a middle-aged couple walking beside me, the husband suddenly dropped like a stone. His wife looked with bewilderment at him. A transit cop materialized and for some reason blew his whistle – perhaps to summon colleagues.

He crouched beside the body, felt for a pulse, and said, “It’s all right, lady – he’s dead.”

“Dead?” she asked. “He can’t be. He just ate breakfast.”

And then, because the platform was crowded and people were pushing me from behind, I moved on. Yet that moment is etched in memory: It’s all right lady – he’s dead. He can’t be – he just ate breakfast.

But of course we all can be, from moment to moment, at any moment, even in the middle of a love story, even when boy is just about to get girl.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Aleksandar Hermon--a shining example for all bilingual writers

Once in a while a bilingual writer comes along who puts us all to shame. Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad come to mind. They managed to write forcefully in their second language. Following in their footsteps is the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hermon, the child of a Ukrainian father and a Bosnian-Serbian mother. When war erupted in his homeland in 1992 shortly after he came to the US, he found himself stranded here. This 44 year old journalist from Sarajewo, did not speak English. Three years later he published his first story and his first book (The Question of Bruno) in 2000 in English. He wrote for the New Yorker, The Paris Review, published three more books and won the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant.”
Aleksandar Hermon gave himself five years to learn English, five years to write and publish his first story in English. He worked as a sandwich assembly-line worker, a bike messenger, as a bookstore clerk and as a door to door magazine subscriptions salesman. “He also read voraciously in English, storing words he didn’t know on note cards, and within three years had achieved his goal.” (Larry Rother: Twice-Told Tales, The New York Times, 5.15.09)
I cleaned the apartments of elderly Jewish ladies, sold nuts from a push cart, worked in the theater, as a Go-Go dancer and a school counselor. I too recorded the words that I didn’t understand, couldn’t remember or pronounce, into a notebook—schedule, issue, vicarious— but it took me more than 20 years to publish my first story in English. I did not become a voracious reader of English books like Aleksandar Hermon. Reading with a dictionary in hand was too much work and no pleasure at all. There was peace in my homeland; the wall had come down, and Germany won the Soccer World Cup. I was not in despair—a good writing motivator according to Hermon.
“I was cut off from my previous life, in despair … I had this horrible, pressing need to write because things were happening. I needed to do it the same way I needed to eat, but I just had no language to write in. I couldn’t do it, and so I thought I should enable myself to do it.” (ibid.)
I lacked the confidence to write in English. The belief that, aside from Beckett and Nabokov, no one could write in a second language, held me back. Then I discovered a new generation of writers: Turkish, Russian and Japanese writers who wrote in German, Dominican and Haitian writers who wrote in English. Some playfully integrated their first and second languages. Their example gave me the courage to try the same. Like Hermon and many other bilingual writers I found a new, welcoming home in the English language. Aleksandar Hermon recently discussed writing in a second language with Junot Díaz and had this to say (my translation):
“Everyone can declare the English language his home and no one can be banned from it…..Everyone can bring his experiences with a foreign language into American English without having to fear being expelled from it.” (Thomas David: Amerika auf dem Weg zur postnationalen Literatur?, Neue Züricher Zeitung, June 8, 2009.)
I am grateful to Aleksandar Hermon for being such a shining example and inspiration for bilingual writers everywhere.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

InsideOut Literary Arts Project

We'll stray a bit from our usual subjects to encourage your participation in this important cause:

Support the InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit by contributing to the challenge grant program through the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Beginning August 18th, the Foundation will donate a dollar for every two dollars donated to InsideOut.

Read what Peter Markus has to say about the great work of the InsideOut Project.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Literary Magazine as Mole

Over at the Goethe Institut website there's an interesting overview of Germany literary magazines:
Like moles, literary magazines burrow through the subsoil and often bring literary treasures to light. They live on self-exploitation, are sometimes short-lived and bizarre, and publish against the mainstream. And they sometimes feel out trends that later rock the literary scene with truly eruptive success.
Read the article in its entirety here.