The Centennial: September 5, 1914

It never took long for a teaching plan to fall apart. Even if “plan” should’ve been in scare quotes to start with.

Eran had organized his section of HIST 1000 to explore both causes and effects, looking at Communism from 1917 to 1991. He had split his class into two randomly constituted groups, one tracing backwards from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to look for a root cause, the other moving forward from the Russian Revolution to look for the beginning of the end. In the “plan,” he had expected one of two things to happen. Either the group beginning in 1991 would conclude that the Soviet project was doomed from the outset while the group beginning in 1917 would identify some point between 1950 and 1970 as the pivotal moment, or both groups would go, “Yeah, Stalin sucked.”

Eran hadn’t anticipated that both groups would look at him with vague incomprehension when he outlined this plan. Or that, after the outline, when he sat down with the 1991ers to help them plan out their research, the girl in the dark glasses would ask, “So what caused the Soviet Union to break up?”

Fortunately, Eran was teaching a MWF 9-10 schedule, and his own classes were on Tuesday and Thursday. So by mid-morning Friday he was on his own time. He had immediately gone to Bordertown, ordered the largest, most expensive latte drink on the menu, and settled in to read the students’ first assignments. Given what you currently know about the collapse of the Soviet Union, explain in one page when you think the collapse became irreversible. He wanted to see what they currently knew, how they thought, whether they could write, and whether he had any prospective history majors in the bunch.

An hour later, he was done with all 21 papers and tabulated his results:

  1. Not much.
  2. Mixed bag.
  3. Depends on the person.
  4. Yeah, maybe four. Not bad!

Eran had a boatload of reading to do for his own classes, and he had vowed that this would be the semester he started writing his dissertation, even if he wrote it on the garbage-paragraph-a-day plan. He didn’t have time to get caught off guard by a flashback.

He found himself at the London Underground.

Eran had been to the station once before: study abroad, parent-funded. It was Whitechapel. Eran desperately, pruriently wanted to crane his head around and look for where the Ripper murders had been, so much more recently than in Eran’s time. So it’s violent. So what? At least it’s different violence. But the head he was in was just leaving it. Purpose: a pub, something to eat. A hand dove into his pocket, hunting coins. There were few.

“You going to carry that around all day?”

Eran couldn’t access his companion’s name. Henry, Charles, George: one of those kings. He felt strongly that his own name was Pete. In his hand he held a copy of London Opinion, a discard he had snatched while riding into Whitechapel. All day on the line for a fare, when he didn’t have anywhere else to go.

“Everyone’s signing up, aren’t they?” he said. Eran interpreted Pete’s accent as Cockney, but it sounded just a shade off in this year. Possibly not enough BBC codification.

“Nothing to do with us, right?”

“Nothing to do with us. Until they come and take us away.”

Lord Kitchener’s finger and eyes followed him no matter which way he slanted the paper. Your country needs YOU. Nice to feel wanted, he supposed. And anyway, only a matter of time until they did come to take Pete away. And the stories coming out of Belgium… Maybe it was a worthwhile cause, something left to proud of in the empire’s old bones. Maybe.

Maybe Eran needed to get reading before Stefan asked whether he was serious about scholarship.

He had drained his latte and had nothing left to stall over. So he stared out the window. The propaganda effort, the belief that a country’s future could really depend on whoever saw that cover. Had it worked? If it had worked, what would it have felt like to enlist at the time?

Pete’s was another fate Eran would never track down. He simply marked the name in his notebook. Above it were the wife’s, the Belgian soldier’s, and the Danube sailor’s.

September 5, 1914: Cover date of the London Opinion which debuted a version of the famous Lord Kitchener recruiting illustration.

It Sucks: José Saramago, Blindness

Sadly, my initial assessment was too generous. In the back half, Saramago’s apocalyptica-by-rote really starts to grate. If there’s an original sin to this novel, it might be Saramago’s decision to let the doctor’s wife keep her sight. A civilization brought low by blindness offers an expansive linguistic playground for a writer: how do you render people who not only can’t see, but are learning to sense from scratch? Sound, smell, taste, and touch don’t mean the same thing if you have to use them instead of sight to build a world. Words could get bent into new and interesting shapes describing that world. But it’s like Saramago hedged his bets by keeping one character who could look at stuff. And then she turned into the main character. Bo-ring.

I can’t believe there’s a sequel (Seeing, natch). What’s left to talk about? Maybe it’s interesting whether the old guy with the eyepatch and the young woman actually go through with their marriage…nah.


The Centennial: August 30, 1914

Mildred was only assisting with a course section – the one Eran had originally been assigned to – but despite the low effort required, she insisted she wanted Eran to look over her course plan: “I don’t know anything about East Asian history.” Ian, Cam, and Eran’s parents had taken a Labor Day jaunt to the family cabin up by Lake of the Woods; Eran, finishing his own syllabus, couldn’t go, so he couldn’t use obligation as an excuse to Mildred. Thus the Sunday before Labor Day he and Mildred were in the Purple Onion, planning their assignments.

It was welcome.

Unemployment aside, Eran had lived a charmed life. Neither parent had died; they had stayed married. (Mildred skirted the topic of a broken home.) He and Ian were friends. All four grandparents were still alive, closing out their ninth active decades in pleasant retirement communities. Before the MRI, his most intensive medical procedure had been a dental filling. But a week ago, in someone else’s head, Eran had just missed mass murder. Every night since, he had dreamed of the miracle. Last night the miracle had failed to appear. So it was helpful, for an afternoon, to be talking to someone about something else.

“Don’t set yourself up for too much grading. Nothing other than what Xiaoyu hands out. Last fall, Stefan only had a paper and two tests, but I assigned weekly written quizzes on top of that. There went my Saturdays.”

Mildred tapped the advice into her tablet, angling away from her triple dark roast to avoid an accidental knockover. “How long should it take me to grade?”

“For papers, no more than four minutes a page.”

“How do I

They were surrounded. All was lost. The entire Russian army had shed their gear and run panicking into the Germans, who would find better looting than a prospector at an abandoned pirate cave. There was no hope from Rennenkampf. It couldn’t be long before the Germans would finish them off. And with the reports of their behavior in Belgium…

Eran should have been thinking in Russian. But when he realized where he was – Tannenberg – and who was with him – a bearded bruiser, ashen and wide-eyed – he fought the connection. He didn’t want the crazy static of someone else’s memory to resolve into thoughts he would have to understand.

The bearded bruiser, seeming catatonic, could only say: “The tsar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?”

Eran had read the translation of those words before. He remembered the disastrous communications protocols, the old codes and cavalry couriers, and that, famously, troop movements had been transmitted, unencrypted, just days before. The magnitude of the loss was all on the general’s head. Samsonov would slip off to the woods alone.

Eran tried. “Sir – “

keep it to that?”

“Time yourself. No cheating.”

The words, loaded up before the flashback, spilled out on their own, the last just before he clamped his jaw shut to hold down the bile.

“Thanks.” Mildred tapped that in without looking away. “You’re sweating. Too hot in here?”

How could he have wanted company?

August 30, 1914: Following his Second Army’s rout at the Battle of Tannenberg, General Aleksandr Samsonov commits suicide in the woods near Willenberg, East Prussia.

Michael S. Neiberg and David Jordan’s The Eastern Front 1914-1920 was used as background for this update.

Read-in-Progress: Beth Gutcheon, Domestic Pleasures

Nine pages into Domestic Pleasures, a character said, “I’m in a pay phone.” I flipped back to the copyright page and found that the original publication date was 1991. “First Perennial edition published 2001,” the page helpfully added, which means there was enough demand to reprint it.

Why? Domestic Pleasures is utterly disposable – possibly source material for a movie like Crazy, Stupid, Love, but nothing that ought to leap back onto the shelf. Seventy pages in, Raymond Gaver has been made out as a philandering sociopath who justly died when his plane exploded. When his divorce attorney Charlie goes to settle the estate with Raymond’s ex-wife Martha, and…

I guess they’re gonna fall in love. Meanwhile, by page 70 we’ve also had eight perspective characters, including a Phoebe and a Patsy, and a Connie and a Charlie. Few are necessary, and most aren’t terribly interesting. This is especially true with the bratty, racist teenager Phoebe, daughter of Charlie. Charlie takes Phoebe’s expulsion from school as a chance to bond with Martha, but that’s borderline unbelievable; they’ve already shared Chinese food after a pool-table delivery (god, don’t ask), but it’s a big leap from lo mein to parenting advice.

Gutcheon does give it some nice attitude in spots (viz. Sherry’s dropping a Dorothy Parker reference while hearing of Raymond’s death). This prevents Domestic Pleasures from descending into Kristyn Kusek Lewis territory. Other times, though – as with Phoebe’s racism, or Jack’s asking “Who’s this Leveque unit?” in vintage Totally Radical fashion – the attitude goes badly awry. And I’m suspecting, as the Hand of Plot pushes Martha and Charlie together, that the attitude is going to get scraped off like mold, leaving only the bitterly stale bread of cliché in its place. (That simile may not actually work.) I guess I’ll finish – it’s a quick read – but I’m dreading the conclusion.

The Centennial: August 24, 1914

Classes approached. Mildred was emailing for help planning her course. Students were requesting syllabuses and “I really need to get an A.” One confused sophomore asked if Eran would be his thesis advisor. On the other hand, Eran had a supplementary stipend for the year, his rent was holding steady, and Stefan had been uncharacteristically complimentary about the revisions to his spring seminar paper: One more round, and you’ll have a journal article on your hands. So things could have been worse.

But Eran wasn’t ready to go back to school. One last weekend, he swore, one last lazy Sunday before I have to grow up again.

Ian was of the same mind.

“Cam keeps telling me everything’s gonna change. No more nights out, no more days to ourselves. I don’t know. It’s just a matter of setting priorities, really. And we’ll have to do it. With the promotion, I’m going to be traveling. I won’t even be here half the time.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

Ian shrugged everything off. He could afford to. His leased, oddly stodgy Buick Enclave took the grooved pavements of Lexington as if it were cruising on fresh blacktop. He had already spilled at least three espressos on his console: Thank god for detailing, was his reaction. “We’ve gotta pay for the wedding. Plus the kid’ll need a college fund. Maybe private school. Study-abroad. Cam says she’s going to stay home – someone has to make the money.”

“So that’s your plan for the world? Let everything go private because you can afford it? To hell with the rest of us?”

Ian’s look was not without sympathy. “And how would you be doing, right now, if you could respond to the world as it is, not just as you want it to be?”

Eran lost every argument, and knew he deserved to. His case had at least some merit, but he got too irritated and brought it up at times when it wasn’t even relevant. Like today.

And then there were his biographical liabilities. The nonprofit social services group for which Eran had been operations manager – no advancement, but a living wage! Benefits! Purpose! – had folded during the recession, too obscure to draw the affluent donors that kept other orgs afloat.

Which was why, many Sundays, Ian the younger brother/success story paid for Eran’s lunch. Today it was Mai Village and pho.

“Why the past-life thing, anyway? Dad and Mom think you’ve had a psychotic break.”

“Illusion of control, maybe. If I can’t respond to the world as it is, maybe find a different world so I can?”

Eran heard himself say this and realized it was an exit line. He might, in fact, be psychic…

Some gardens had been spared, but not this one: boots tramping on it all night, and the men digging their feet in desperately as they were pushed into place. The German captain was lining them up by the wall.

Someone’s child had been torn away, was crying, would live. It might not have been anyone’s child anymore. Mothers and fathers had died, panicked and ran.

Things like this weren’t done to people like her.

I can’t believe it. They will.

(It was her thought and Eran’s. He was frozen. She…)

Her legs worked on their own. She passed the captain as if floating. Destination: husband. Him. They were beyond names, on to the irregular scar behind his ear and the blue stubble he could never scrape off.

I won’t. I won’t. To her ears she sounded determined. She might have been begging. (Eran physically tried to pull back. He couldn’t help her. They would make her face the guns.)

Whatever alchemy passed between her and the captain, she had never seen before. Mercy. A miracle. Her husband’s hand in her own: she was leading him away from the wall. A last thought for the men who had no one to plead for them – who were, perhaps, hating her as their last act – and they were free, he was trembling, she whispering: Lean into me. Don’t listen. Go.

Eran looked up at Ian.

“You’re looking confused, dude. Was that one?” Ian hardly tried to hide his grin.

“I just saw a bunch of people murdered.”

“Oh.” Ian looked down at his bowl and said the only thing there was to say. “I’m sorry.”

August 24, 1914: Massacre at Dinant, in Belgium. German troops kill civilians amounting to as much as 10 percent of the town’s population.

Read-in-Progress: José Saramago, Blindness

I’m not surprised that the movie adaptation of Blindness starred Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. They’re the avatars of middlebrow indie: thoughtful, attentive to character, but neither innovative nor surprising.

Blindness is, similarly, middlebrow lit. Think Freedom, or (probably) The Hours, or any of those Brooklyn-y kind of books written by someone over 40. Its plot, in which people start going inexplicably blind and are forcibly quarantined by the government, includes a bunch of standard plot and character beats that have to be hit. People have to cast blame on each other. The army has to shoot innocent civilians. The blind have to bury the dead. At least Saramago works through the guideposts briskly. There’s no holding us hostage until he makes his point, which is good, because his point is right there.

I’m enjoying Blindness, but it’s nothing special, and I’ m not going to feel compelled to keep it around after I’m done. If you’re looking for a Portuguese novelist, Antonio Lobo Antunes is weirder and more fun.

The Centennial: August 16, 1914

The MRI was normal, so Eran’s parents asked him to get a psychiatric evaluation. “No problem,” Eran said. “Can I go to the shrink you made me see when I went back to grad school?”

If there was anything Eran hated most about his thirties, aside from all the other stuff, it was that he again related to his parents the way he had as an undergrad. All Can I borrow some money? and I’m sorry, you’re right.

HH (who asked that her name be pronounced hrngh, like a sound from Bjork’s Medulla) was a retired marine with an office at University and 280. She did some stuff that she called “est” and that Eran called “playing drill sergeant.” Still, she had never made fun of him for being an unemployed, old grad student. Yes, Eran had explained in their first meeting, he was embarking on years of low-paid, grueling study with a middling chance of sustainable employment afterwards, but it’s the least bad of my available options. And HH – who after all had probably been pinned down under rocket fire in Fallujah – had said, Sounds sensible. Call if you want to. So sometimes, with UMN health insurance, Eran did.

Eran took the Green Line over at noon. If there was anything he liked about his thirties – not “most,” just at all – it was that perpetual unemployment made it easier to fit appointments in.

“Yeah, but the dreams don’t bother you. They just bother your parents.”

“I guess they feel useful. Different, anyway. And they’re free entertainment.”

“Do you think your parents feel threatened by your burgeoning adulthood?”

“I think it’s burgeoned out and turning brown on the vine. Besides, Ian is way past me in the grown-up race and that doesn’t bother them.”

“But you’re the one they’re depending on, aren’t you? Ian went overseas for college. You stayed in the area. Ian travels for work. You’ve never looked outside the metro. Aren’t they maybe threatened by anything that might take you away?”

They had been spared the worst of it for the longest. The other forts went down first, and the town suffered. He had seen the damaged bridge, and that story about the jowly German pounding the pommel of his sword into the Citadel’s door had made the rounds. The waiting had been difficult. They had heard about, and heard, the artillery; they were in no hurry to live through it (“though it’d beat the alternative”).

But by the time it came to Flémalle…well. Eran had lived in some nasty apartments, but at least he could open windows (in summer, anyway). It wasn’t long into the bombardment before the fort became, essentially, a habitable toilet. Here he was thankful that his quantum leaps were delivered as zip files. He only had the briefest impression of the reek before they had moved on to the decision.

In the fort, they could only hope that they had lasted long enough to let the army do what it needed to do. They were ready to go.

“What a weird time for that to happen,” Eran said out loud.

“Was that it? If you hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have seen it.”

“Hmm. Something failed while succeeding. Story of my life.”

“Sounds like you’re ready for some more est.”


August 16, 1914: Fort de Flémalle becomes the last fortress of Liège to surrender to the Germans. Liège’s unexpected resistance gave the Belgian army time to escape and the French army extra time to mobilize.