Two Lives

I just read Two Lives, Vikram Seth’s holocaust memoir of the life of his great-aunt Henny and great-uncle Shanti. My favorite parts of the book are the stories set in pre-war Germany — Shanti’s early struggles as an immigrant dental student, his incorporation into the lively social circle of his landlady and her daughters, with picnics, alpine vacations, and Christmas dinners; with tension provided by the unstated romantic polygon among Lola, Henny, Henny’s presumed fiance Hans, and Shanti. From a stash of letters discovered in an attic, Seth pieces together a post-war epistolary detective story of loyalty and betrayal when Henny reconnects with old friends and finds out how they treated her mother and sister during the war. I also enjoyed the bits of first-person narrative that show Seth’s relationship to his aunt and uncle when he stayed with them as university student (the auto-biographical bits also seemed like they were excepts of an unwritten memoir).
Is there any difference between a holocaust memoir written by an Indian great-nephew rather than a Jewish one? After learning about the fate of his great-aunt’s family, Seth makes a pilgrimage to Yad Vashem, finds their names on a transport list, and is overwhelmed; after reading the inventory forms recording the confiscation of household radios and silverware; and the inventory logistics of the trains to Auschwitz, he becomes viscerally repelled by the German language. So far, his emotional reactions are those of a late but true entrant to this strange extended family.
Seth isn’t infected by the “never forget” anxiety to document the story before the protagonists all die; Seth’s research is his the usual obsessive investigation into the background of his stories rather than the ideological fetishism of the memory project. The story of Seth’s trip to Israel also includes a cameo Friday night dinner with a Jewish family, in which he brings a beautiful Indian-Muslim architect friend; on the way back they get briefly lost in east Jerusalem; the cameo creates an opportunity for a little lecture that is one part “can’t-we-get-along” humanism and one-part post-colonial propaganda.
The story, as a whole, illustrates Seth’s love for his relatives whose quiet virtues are kindness, determination and stoicism. Since Seth is great-nephew, he is not sucked into the emotional void, poisoned bickering, and persistent background fear that might come with closer relation. The displaced lives of Shanti and Henny read against the themes of exile and cosmopolitanism that animated Seth’s much earlier Golden Gate, where the vectors of displacement include homosexuality, breakup, and the transient culture of San Francisco’s adoptive families. The theme of a multi-ethnic assimilated culture split by violence is kin to the hindu/muslim theme in suitable boy and Indian history.
The bit that I liked least was the ending, where Uncle Shanti, in failing physical and mental health, starts treating his family badly. It is true that living through the daily physical and emotional pain of an isolated, sick elderly man is agonizing and tedius; Seth forces the reader to live through too much of it. What’s worse, this section still reads as personal, and not yet resolved. Seth is still mad at his uncle for turning mean at the very end of his life; Seth’s anger belongs in journals and family conversation, not for a public audience.
In the book, Seth agonizes out loud about whether it is to publish his aunt’s private letters, and decides that it was the right thing to do; this decision is right, at least literarily. But his decision to air his anger at the irrational actions of his uncle seems literarily as well as ethically askew.
Other bits which could have been cut from the book include a rambling political essay and some family stories set in India before Shanti leaves for Europe. The mostly-interpolated stories of Lola and Elly’s last months were written for Seth’s readers who have not read N holocaust memoirs, history books, and films. The stories worth reading showed distinctive lives, not dehumanized deaths. DVDs these days have “outtake” sections — it would be interesting to publish novels using that convention, putting the outtakes on the web, and only include the core story on paper.

The Great Influenza

After reading John Barry’s nonfiction epic about the great Mississippi flood of 1927, I picked up his other grand, retrospectively timely history of the 1918 influenza epidemic.
With the threat of bird flu raising the spectre of a repeat of 1918, The Great Influenza has lessons for today.

  • leadership makes a difference. During the plague, communication, supplies, and basic nursing services made a big difference in the number of survivors.
  • corruption kills. In Philadelphia and New York, the Tammany controlled political machines replaced competent public health administrators with unqualified cronies. When the epidemic hits, no amount of preparation will keep resources from being overwhelmed, but incompetence makes a bad situation worse.
  • quarantine helps. While nothing could stop the infection, slowing the spread of infection through quarantine helped. In Wilson’s America, where military readiness counted for everything, troop transport took precedence over quarantine. At the same time, there is no evidence supporting the Bush adminstration’s proposal to use troops to enforce quarantine. The problem wasn’t the lack of ability to enforce quarantine, it was the lack of will to declare quarantine.
  • communication is key. The World War 1 practices of propaganda and censorship created pseudo-news to “boost morale”. The propaganda hampered useful communication and encouraged an atmosphere of terror.

Like Rising Tide, The Great Influenza interweaves the story of the response to a great disaster with the rise of emerging science and technology of disaster prevention and response. In Rising Tide the threads came together with tragic irony — the great engineering works to control the Mississippi ended up making the disaster more severe. In the Great Influenza, the race for a cure failed. While the epidemic was raging, scientists did not find the real cause or the cure for the flu. Scientists did find the cause of the secondary bacterial infection that killed many victims, but did not isolate the virus until years after the plague. Instead, the epidemic flamed out. In the places hit by the flu, the virus flared for 4-6 weeks, and quickly exhausted the fuel of non-immune humans.
Also, it wasn’t until later that scientists discovered the reason that the 1918 epidemic was so deadly to young, healthy people. The 1918 virus triggered an extreme immune response that was more severe in the young and healthy than the old and week.
Part of the drama of Rising Tide was the conflict between the 19th century heroic engineers. The Great Influenza focuses even more strongly on the personalities of the pioneering scientists, at the expense of strong exposition of the science itself.
Also, the Great Influenza is marred by overwriting and lack of editing. Barry repeats “it was only influenza” to dramatizes the way the destructiveness of the familiar sickness was at first underestimated. The phrase is repeated over and over again across chapters, becoming overwrought and grating. One anecdote about striking miners forced into boxcars in the Arizona desert is told three different times.
As a result of these weaknesses, the book is short of brilliant, but it is well worth reading for the history and potential relevance to today’s risks.

What I liked about Sideways

The buddy movie about two forty-ish men — a failing novelist and a failing actor — going on a wine-country tour the week before the actor’s wedding.
I liked the way Sideways made fun of an intellectual — the writer’s wine snobbery is simultaneously a sign of absurd pretention, unacknowledged alcoholism, and genuine passionate avocation.
I liked some of the structural craftsmanship — the movie has repeated scenes of iffy driving, but the car crash that eventually happens is different than you’d expect.
I liked the sets — attentive depictions of America’s seedy kitch, without Quentin Tarantino’s glamor or Coen caricature. The characters walk from the two-story motor-courtyard motel along the highway by a car lot, to a western-kitch restaurant called “the hitching post”. It may be cheesy, but it’s our landscape.
I liked the way the writer’s chronic hesitancy contrasted with the actor’s chronic impulsiveness. Between them, there was a fraction of one mature person. The actor’s impulsive suggestion that the characters should run off to start a wine business was the most sensible idea in the movie — the actor’s hucksterism, the writer’s estheticism, and the practicality of the female characters might have resulted in a working business.
I think the male actors — Paul Giamatti and Jack Church — are funny. The female characters are dull in a love-interest sort of way.
I liked the way the move was about lying to oneself (the writer’s alcoholism, the actor’s slim chance at marital fidelity) and to others (the writer’s taking vacation money from his mother’s underwear drawer, the actor’s deception of women.
I like the way that in the novelistic tradition, the story is about an economic constraint in society — creative fields like writing, music, and acting focus on hit-based celebrity of the young.
A number of reviewers complain that the characters aren’t likable, or worse, that the filmmakers don’t have compassion for the characters. I have a creepy suspicion that the truth may be worse — that the difference between the characters and the movie makers is that the movie makers make a bit more money and get caught less.