The Centennial: October 22, 1914

Eran was very still; the world was not. Shells shook the trench. Water sloshed around him. He kept his face turned to the side, to breathe. The mud clogged his nostrils, innocently, as if it weren’t trying to kill him.

It wasn’t even 1916 yet.

At the exact moment that Eran wanted to raise his head, his head was raised. It was dark. His host seemed to be looking for a chance to go over the top. Eran was just looking. The trench – he was shocked – was less than waist-high, hardly deep enough to hide in. No barbed wire, no fortifications, just mud sliding down a slope, directly into his face. Casualty counts suddenly made sense.

He wasn’t alone: face in someone else’s bootheels, boots in someone else’s face. There was shouting, in English, from his own line. He must have been British.

To Eran’s left a pinprick of light blossomed, swelled, merged with sky. Something was on fire. His host had his own transport, back to a warm hearth, impossible sweetness. It ended. The host thought it would be a good time to charge. He then thought the Germans might be using the flames as a guide. Seconds later, a shell landed nearly on top of him, rolling him in a landslide.

Were they supposed to go over? Eran shook himself off. He spotted the town from the rear-facing wall, orienting himself. Whatever was going to happen, would happen.

“But, Professor Swanson, I’m not a C student! I’m not satisfied with this!”

Given what he had just seen, Eran couldn’t believe he had to continue having this conversation with Ariana. “The point is, it’s a C test. But you can make it up on the next one.”

“Can I still get an A?”

What, was he a math professor, to calculate odds of final grades in his head? “This test is 40% of your grade. So no, it’s an A- at best. But that’s still good.”

“Can I get extra credit?”

In the cube behind Ariana, Mildred began to shake with silent laughter. The TAs had just watched the infamous “I Need an A.”

On the train home, Eran scribbled some notes in his book. Mud. Fire. Earlier than expected. Eran had thought his host would be helpless and terrified. Maybe it took time, grinding away at the nerves? Maybe his host was just stoic.

Why had he gone to Gwendolyn expecting to understand? Whatever. He didn’t understand at all.

October 22, 1914: Germans capture the town of Langemarck, part of the Ypres salient, during First Ypres. This battle was an early instance of trench warfare on the Western Front.

Read-in-Progress: Henry Roth, Call It Sleep

Children are crazy effective as narrators. In some books, characters are vehicles for delivering information, and having your main character be a child who’s just discovering everything about the world is a great way to deliver that information naturally. The Harry Potter books only function as well as they do because Harry goes to classes or asks “Hagrid, what’s that?” in every chapter (or he spies on people, the little turd). Otherwise, they’d be 3,000-plus pages of Tolkien-esque infodumps.

The limitation of children as narrators, particularly for novels aimed at adults, is that they’re constantly discovering things the readers already know. That chokes off complexity. So it is with Call It Sleep, in which young David and his mother leave Galicia to join David’s father in the New York of 1907. The father, Albert, isn’t sure David is his child, and is naturally surly, while David’s mother, Genya, is gentle and understanding. So far David has already learned about sex and death, and is trying to understand what the family’s sometime tenant Luter means by staring at his mother.

A back-cover blurb (from The New Yorker‘s Lis Harris) describes Roth as “sensually attuned to the tumultuous depths of a child’s world.” Which, sure – but again, pettings in dark closets and the fear of funerals aren’t all that complicated to an adult; I sort of nod in recognition and move on. Returning to Harry Potter, Harry’s classes, questions, and spying reveal a world the reader doesn’t already know. I don’t know that much about Jewish immigrant neighborhoods circa 1900, but I know enough. I’m enjoying the book, but I don’t see it making the shelf.

The Centennial: October 13, 1914

Ordinarily Eran didn’t enjoy giving Fs. He saw them as the mark of inadequate teaching. But he had too much going on to spare feelings (his students’ or his own). After reading the eighth straight essay test where, in response to the prompt beginning “Choose one strength or weakness of the Soviet Union…”, a student had concluded “There were many strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union” – Eran was done.

It was a good day for failure. Another gray sky reminded Eran, again, of the black-and-white trench photographs from the war, where it seemed as if nothing could ever be warm, dry, or happy. The temperature was pleasant – he was grading with his window open – but the light faded early, as if distant winter’s scouts swept it away. His parents and Ian were proposing a trip to Hawaii for the holidays. Eran couldn’t afford the airfare and, worse, knew his parents would pay if asked. He had turned in his shitty outline to Stefan, “subject to change,” and Stefan had taken it as gospel. The criticisms still rang in Eran’s ears.

The transport had happened during his shower that morning. Another canal down another city center, pickelhaubes on the advance, gray sky and spitting rain. An occupation, Eran thought. He believed he was somewhere in Belgium. Nothing about it stuck out. When he returned to the present, the spitting rain replaced by his sputtering showerhead, he immediately went back to recalling bus schedules and creating a mental shopping list. He did make a note to familiarize himself with the Race to the Sea; the Western Front between the taxicab salvation and the Christmas truce was a fuzzy blur. It just seemed not to matter.

He thought about calling Mildred, asking her out for coffee. In the end, he did not.

October 13, 1914: In the concluding week of the Race to the Sea, the Germans occupy Ghent in Belgium.

Abandonment Issues: John Irving, The Fourth Hand

The Japan chapter, where everything goes wrong and Patrick misunderstands the English that Japanese people speak, is what did me in. I didn’t like it in Lost in Translation; I like it even less given that Irving beat Coppola to the punch by a couple years.

A couple side notes. First, when talking about William Gaddis, I alluded to my dislike of readers’ group guides. The Fourth Hand has one, and is also the kind of book that has one: shallow, quirky (that’s not a compliment), easily digested, not needing interpretation. The book could still drive a good readers’ group; those are just an excuse to drink coffee, eat chocolate, and goof off, which is what makes them so great. But when publishers try to manufacture readers’ groups, they cook up questions like the following:

Patrick Wallingford is not a devoted fan or watchers of sports events before he meets Doris and the Clausens. The Clausens are almost religious about their commitment to football and the Green Bay Packers. What does being a sports fan seem to represent in the novel?

I don’t actually want books to transport me back to my high school lit classes, thanks.

Also, Irving’s writing is a type that I’ve come to associate with male American novelists born in the 1930s and 1940s. Sex is always on everyone’s mind, and there’s an authoritative snideness to the narrator that both amuses and irritates. Stephen King also writes this way; I only got into him because he’d leaven the proceedings with a random vampire attack or whatever, but I don’t see that happening with Irving. I don’t think I need to pick up Garp or Cider House.

The Centennial: October 10, 1914

Friday afternoon was pleasant enough, particularly with a weekend to look forward to, but the week as a whole had been blustery and Eran’s flu was dying hard. Having issued a round of Cs to his students for their latest short paper, Eran wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep. But Mildred the go-getter had nudged him into a weekly dissertation session, Friday afternoons, and Eran hadn’t excused himself in time. So Bordertown it was.

“Have you outlined yet?” Eran asked this question as a pre-emptive strike. His own outline still consisted of the Haig = butthead scribbles that he was intending to throw out.

“I did before I got here.” Mildred had gotten a latte with caramel, her nod to the seasonal menu oddities of a Starbucks. Eran was sticking to tea until his sinuses cleared.

“Is it any good?”

“It’s just what I know now. I want to do something tying European urbanization in the twentieth century to the rise of far-right political parties. Right now I’m pretending the two are connected, but if I discover otherwise while I’m investigating, I’ll throw it out and redo my thesis. It’s just like a road map.”

“That sounds much better than my lie-around-like-an-idiot-until-inspiration-strikes strategy.” Eran was too drained to feel inferior.

“Well, maybe. I write a lot of crap papers, but at least they get done. What about you?”

“I thought I’d link the domestic political strategies and social forces behind Haig’s hagiographic wartime reputation to the rise of postwar British pacifism. I did a paper on the latter. It just seemed that there ought to be a connection. But lately I’ve been thinking of something different. The Piketty book is out. I’m wondering if it’s possible to put some actual academic heft behind this idea of cycles of history, and create a Grand Unified Theory of world war.”

“Sounds ambitious.”

“Go big or go home, right?”

“Do you think Stefan will buy it?”

He couldn’t see anything. Had he passed out? No, he was hosted, and his host’s eyes were closed. Eran thought he had caught the man (as it seemed to be) mid-blink, but the blink lasted and lasted and eventually it became clear that the eyes weren’t going to reopen. Ever.

He was dying.

Eran’s own heart stopped. He clung to that thought as a lifeline. His heart was young and healthy and would go on (cue woodwinds). The host‘s heart was faltering.

It seemed to be an old man. The natural end of a lifespan, at home in bed.

Eran could only catch scraps of thoughts: a marriage, a coronation, the loss of a child, unhappiness, negotiations. A beard mixed in – damn that nineteenth century. There were confused half-decisions about the war: this was apparently a man of some responsibility? He seemed to be torn between sides. Something else about a nephew with ears a mile wide.

The scraps ceased. Eran was still there. What the hell?

He waited.

He waited.


“Sorry,” Eran said reflexively. “Tired.”

“Need more tea?”

“Nah.” Eran was glad it had happened while he was with Mildred. Better anyone than alone.


“I think,” Eran said carefully, “that I don’t care if Stefan buys it. I care if I buy it. So I guess I’ll just ask him for enough rope to hang myself, and see what happens.”

“That could get you in a lot of trouble.”

“It could. I dunno. If I can’t be brave about a writing project, then what’s the point?”

October 10, 1914: Carol I, the king of Romania, dies. He is succeeded by his nephew, Ferdinand I, who in contrast to Carol I’s preferences would eventually oversee Romania’s entry into the war on the side of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom.

Abandonment Issues: Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo

I should have seen this coming. The House on Mango Street, while getting three and a half stars on Goodreads, also occupies more real estate in used bookstores and clearance sections than even Jan Karon’s Mitford series. But Cisneros is prominent enough of an author that I’ve always intended to try her out. I chose  Caramelo over Mango Street, and now I think I’m done.

Here’s a selection from my notes:

p. 6: Don’t really love the inventory of stuff.

p. 15: Okay, their apartments are kinda full of junk.

p. 17: Listy.

p. 28: Boring. There’s no story; there’s just stuff.

p. 50: You already told us about the rollaway bed.

p. 73: It’s not a great sign that she’s already bored with Chicago and the Awful Grandmother’s apartment, and has to send the family on a sub-vacation to Acapulco.

Lala, her family, and her two uncles’ families go to to visit Lala’s grandmother in Mexico City for the summer. Stuff happens…sort of? It mostly doesn’t. There’s a constant piling up of items, and not much momentum. I let Caramelo sit on my table for a good two weeks – a cooling-off period – and when I picked it back up, I was bored within two paragraphs. There were three hundred and thirty pages to go. Done.

The Centennial: September 29, 1914

Just one bullet at Aarschot. A minor wound. But he wasn’t recovering as he thought he should, so they had shipped him back to Antwerp. Where, as it turned out, he couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and listen to people slosh around outside.

He slept for most of each day. Dr. Mertens of the flowing beard wouldn’t tell him that anything was wrong. But when he did awaken, feverish, he thought there were whispered conversations at the foot of his bed.

He thought he would probably die. The thought that he could die, when he had so recently been young and strong and able to shoot, made him so angry that he fell back asleep.

He thought he had died. He felt movement, he saw stars – directly above him. He lifted his head. What?

Dr. Mertens swam into view. You’re being moved. We’ll find a place where they’ll take good care of you.

That’s what Antwerp was supposed to be! he shouted.

Dr. Mertens glanced at the nurse. He appeared ready to share something – You’re going to die, There’s no hope, We’ll bury you alive – and the distant blast of a gun intervened.

He understood.

Assisted, he was able to board the train. Every car was unlit. By a handheld lamp he was shepherded past raw recruits, their eyes like moons as they saw him – he had wasted, in just weeks – a harbinger of their own futures. The nurse arranged him as comfortably as possible on a bunk. Then she was gone. Some time later, after more sleep, he felt the train begin to move.

It was his desk, wobbling in the wake of a passing freight truck. Eran picked up his head and found that he had drooled on a student’s paper. His first flu of the fall had hit him hard; he had even dozed off on the bus home after class. He was not, in the end, sure that his transport hadn’t been just a dream.

September 29, 1914: Evacuation of the wounded, POWs, new recruits, and equipment from Antwerp begins. The city would formally surrender to the Germans on October 10.