Abandonment Issues: Ismail Kadare, The Siege

I enumerated my beefs with historical fiction before; no need to reiterate them here. (And yes, I realize my hypocrisy.)

I’ll just add that my least favorite historical fiction shares traits with my least favorite fantasy and science fiction: tiresome attention to the trappings of the different era or setting, and a failure to integrate them into a holistic experience. For those reasons, The Siege is not among Kadare’s best works.

The Centennial: September 25, 1915

In conclusion, there were many causes of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Options outside academia made Eran cavalier about grading. Late papers intensified the effect. He poised his hand to dash off a red F, but held the penpoint just over the page. Sigh. C+. Good examination of the evidence, but you need to evaluate it carefully and come to a conclusion. “Why do we Minnesotans hate concluding things?”

“I’m from Wisconsin,” Cam said.

“I’m from California,” Mildred said.

“You’re no help.”

“That’s a conclusion.”

“And you’re a Minnesotan,” Mildred added.

Beginning of a long week. Ian had taken Rosamund over to the ‘rents for a family visit. Eran, having taught that morning, was wrapping up grading the stragglers. Cam was working on a post for her new mommy blog. (She had only ten readers, despite naming it Bitch I’m a Momma.) Mildred had turned in her dissertation proposal. Xiaoyu would shred it, she said, out of insecurity that Mildred’s work was poor enough to call Xiaoyu’s advising into question, but then Mildred would punch through some revisions and everything would be fine.

Last paper. Why did the Soviet Union fall apart? The short answer: Because Stalin sucked. “Hey, this one might actually be good!”

Holding his gun like a crossbar across his heart. Shielding himself from harm. Fingers so tight he could never unclench to fire – what would actually shield him from harm. The end of three days. Boots pounding on shattered earth. If he could just make it back to the starting line…

His name was Leslie. He had a spaniel and never told his hunting friends that he liked to read. Among his things was a copy of Rupert Brooke’s 1914. He thought, I shall die, and they shall not think of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That may or may not be me.

(Eran was put strongly in mind of the young man who had bivouacked with the amorous local landowner.)

His 10th Gloucesters had launched three days before; had seen the gas released, the cloud blowing back over their own line; heard the coughing and retching. The panic. Equal parts fear of disgrace and fear of harm. He remembered the start. Awaiting the call, Leslie was held exactly in place by opposing forces. Fear of disgrace pulling him forward across the line. Fear of harm tugging him toward Amiens. How could they be exactly balanced?

Was it time? It was time. It was time. They ran.

The wire, which should have been cut by the barrage, was not cut. But someone found a way through. Leslie followed.

Three days had gone: noise, awake, smoke, duck, dead. Ranks thinning. Clutching his rifle. I must not disgrace myself. Even as he knew there was no one to see. I must not die. Even as he knew it was all too likely.

He was running. Back – back –


Stalin codified the paranoid style of the Soviet Union just as Nixon codified it among the Republicans. Communism never stood a chance.

“Possible history major,” Eran said to Mildred – not a muscle betrayed what he had just seen – and turned to the front page to remind himself of the student’s name.

September 28, 1915: Following three days of fighting in the Battle of Loos, the first large-scale engagement of British New Army units, the British retreated to their starting positions.

It Made the Shelf: Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

The last time we met young Sherston, he was saying goodbye to all that. So I guess Memoirs of an Infantry Officer is a hello. Sherston/Sassoon sees some action, gets sniped, and goes to England on convalescent leave. There he seethes at homefront hypocrisy and sends out a statement against the war, for which action he is rewarded with a stay in a psychiatric hospital.

I finished this book a few days ago, and while I thought it improved on its predecessor, I’ve already forgotten almost everything in it. Sassoon had a hand in creating our image of the Great War, but as a result, reading his fiction is a case of Seinfeld Is Unfunny: it comes across as a rote genre workout. I have an image of a grey (not gray) dawn on the Western Front, privates shivering in a shell hole, and a musty Upstairs, Downstairs drawing room where men in smoking jackets say “Hear, hear.”

It’s a quick read and it’s sharply observed – definitely worth the time – but it’s not gonna blow the mind of anyone even passingly familiar with the war canon. Oh, well – one more to go.

Review: Michele Zackheim, Broken Colors

Good, but ultimately inconsequential, Broken Colors follows the life of one Sophie Marks, painter, from her birth before World War II to her old age in the Oughts. After the war, when her whole family (parents, grandparents, and son) have died, she takes up with the sculptor Luca Bondi on the Continent, until their love affair is shattered by a miscarriage and Luca’s extracurricular child. Sophie spends decades in the metaphorical wilderness, her artistic representation swelling almost without her help, until that extracurricular child finally reunites Sophie and Luca in their old age.

I don’t do visuals, and at any rate the book can only describe (not show) Sophie and Luca’s art, so what that leaves as a plot is Sophie’s ping-ponging between isolation and connection. I don’t read a lot of birth-to-death novels; Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh and David Malouf’s Harland’s Half-Acre are the only two similar books I have on my shelf. A life is so varied and weird that a biography doesn’t necessarily provide a unifying theme for a book. (I usually avoid biographies for that very reason.) “Sophie’s ping-ponging between isolation and connection” is my best miserable attempt at a plot summary, but it omits how the book’s front half gets written off when Sophie meets Luca. That’s how life works, but it doesn’t work in art.

Like I said, good, but inconsequential, and not something I need to keep around.

The Centennial: September 5, 2015

For the first time in his life, an autumn approached in which Eran didn’t want to go to school. Even during his nonprofit days, he had missed the opportunity to sit in a classroom, crack a fresh book, and learn something new. Escaping unemployment by enrolling in graduate school had been a perfect dovetailing of necessity and vision. Then: transports. Then: internship.

Eran’s summer had been, dare he say, fun. He found himself wanting to stay in the cubicle.

But the weekend before classes started, Eran sat in Dunn Brothers with Mildred, filing drafts of lesson plans in neat folders on his laptop. At most he was changing the placement of periods. He hardly cared whether the discussion topics fell on deaf eighteen-year-old ears. He would miss the reasonable checks that would no longer be coming into his bank account every week. He dreaded the first awkward meeting with Stefan, who had let him shirk any semblance of responsibility all summer. Sunitha had promised Eran five to ten paid hours per week that he could do from home; Stefan, if he were upholding his duty, would soon be bothering Eran to begin studying for his orals.

Mildred, on the other hand, had rolled back into Minnesota recharged for academic work. “Nothing like a stranger throwing up in your backseat and then stiffing you on a tip to make others lives seem worthwhile.’

The contract programming work hadn’t come through. Silicon Valley had moved on; the start-ups’ founders weren’t looking for someone who had left the game. Uber it had been, all the way.

“Did it pay well?”

“You read the internet, right?”

Eran had eschewed Uber solely because his car wasn’t good enough. Not being underpaid was just a side benefit. “Do you think

Gentle intelligence. “Intelligence” in the sense of presence, not intellectual firepower. It seemed no philosophical conflict had ever disturbed that unrippled gray matter. A quote from the past floated up: I am not ready to be the Tsar.

Spiky characters, in still-damp ink, marked the paper. The host’s eyes traveled over each line, recalling his cabinet’s objections to this course of action. Eran interpreted them as: Don’t. Anything bad that happens, it’ll be your fault.

But it was what he had been born to do.

The ways of Providence are inscrutable, but my duty and my desire determine me in my resolution for the good of the State.

It would be a bloody tragedy. A family dead in a basement, dumped in a mine; a country in uproar; Stalin; fifty years of nuclear stalemate. But the tsar, though a kind man, deserved to fall. Eran had no answers.

The tsar himself only hoped his adieu would convey civility to his uncle. He signed.

September 5, 1915: Date of Nikolai II’s letter to his uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai, informing him that the tsar will replace him as the leader of the military. 

It Made the Shelf: Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is a misleading title, in that Sassoon’s stand-in George Sherston is neither a man nor fox-hunting for most of the book. The focus in this first book of the trilogy is Sherston’s pastoral upbringing under the auspices of his Aunt Evelyn and Dixon, the groom. There’s fox-hunting, but there’s also cricket and a horse race, the Colonel’s Cup, that Sherston wins in Sassoon’s anticlimactic narration:

After that really remarkable recovery of mine, life became lyrical, beatified, ecstatic, or anything else you care to call it. To put it tersely, I just galloped past Brownrigg, sailed over the last two fences, and won by ten lengths. Stephen came in a bad third. I also remember seeing Roger Pomfret ride up to Jaggett in the paddock and inform him in a most aggressive voice that he’d got to “something well pay up and look pleasant.”

Paragraphs like that, the capper to about two pages describing the race, are the problem. Sassoon piles up details without attending to thematic importance. Should I be surprised that Sherston won? Sad that Sherston’s friend Stephen lost? Or is it more important that Pomfret threatens Jaggett?

Things pick up at book’s end, when Sherston joins the army and ships off to France. Though Sherston experiences no traumatizing combat in this book, both Dixon and Stephen are killed. That yields this penultimate paragraph:

Back in the main trench, I stood on the firestep to watch the sky whitening. Sad and stricken the country emerged. I could see the ruined village below the hill and the leafless trees that waited like sentries up by Contalmaison. Down in the craters the dead water took a dull gleam from the sky. I stared at the tangles of wire and the leaning posts, and there seemed no sort of comfort left in life. My steel hat was heavy on my head while I thought how I’d been on leave last month. I remembered how I’d leant my elbows on Aunt Evelyn’s front gate. (It was my last evening.) That twilight, with its thawing snow, made a comfortable picture now. John Homeward had come past with his van, plodding beside his weary horse. He had managed to make his journey, in spits of the state of the roads…He had pulled up for a few minutes, and we’d talked about Dixon, who had been such an old friend of his. “Ay; Tom was a good chap; I’ve never known a better…” He had said good-bye and good-night and set his horse going again. As he turned the corner the past had seemed to go with him…

That’s a hell of a “good-bye to all that” before the character has even been put through the line.

I had marked Siegfried Sassoon as a Great War also-ran, and he really is. Compared to Wilfred Owen’s experiments with consonance and form, Sassoon was a traditionalist in the Rupert Brooke vein who just happened to write angry. Memoir (in the older politician’s sense) is an appropriate frame for this book; the first chunk of it appears to be thinly fleshed out diary entries. But that closing chapter suggests Sassoon was just setting the stage for what’s to come.

The Centennial: July 1, 1915

His very own cubicle. Not quite as good as his carrel in Wilson, since it had no door. His very own phone. Not quite as good as his cell phone, since it wasn’t on VOIP and not integrated into the directory.

His very own paycheck. $20 an hour. Better than his assistantship.

Eran reported to Sunitha. She wasn’t much older than Eran. They traded stories about educational paths. Her parents had hoped for a lawyer and had advised her to do computer science for security; Sunitha had obliged by going to Cal Tech and getting a dual option in political science. Admitted to law school at the U, she had left after one year and gotten an MFA at Mankato. “I’m the disappointment,” she said. Her sister was a microbiologist and a veteran.

“You have a humanities degree and your title includes the word ‘Director,'” Eran said. “Makes you a hero to me.”

Eran had thought market research would involve advanced statistical analysis of the kind that he hadn’t done since considering a minor in sociology. “Market research” turned out to involve searching Google Maps and feeding profiles of potential clients to the sales team. It mostly involved the ability to sit still and read for an hour at a stretch. Eran had honed this skill, thanks to grading.

The sales team had already landed a new client based on Eran’s research. They asked whether he’d want to make sales calls. The answer was no, except the prospect of commissions turned it to “Yes.”

“You’ll do fine,” Sunitha said. “All you need to have is a killer instinct.”

“But I don’t.”

“At all?”

At the sound of a crash, Oxana bolted from her chair. In the front room, she found what she knew she would: the windowpane, shattered onto the floor. If Leysa hadn’t taken Ivan to the market, he would have been cut to ribbons. For Kliment.

(Ivan – her grandson? Leysa – her daughter-in-law? Eran recognized no thought of a son or a husband.)

She stormed out into the sunshine. The streets of L’viv thrummed. The Russians had as much as evaporated – good riddance – and their sympathizers, their triumph turned to ash, were flinging sacks and trunks into any wheeled conveyance they could rent.

Like Kliment.

You could have killed my grandson! Oxana shouted. A tendril of shame curled into being. A lie. But it could have been true. The shame disappeared in a puff.

Kliment, tall and stout  like the father of the current tsar, slammed his family’s heavy table into the cart. An accident.

You don’t have accidents – you have policies. You closed our schools. Now Ivan speaks only Russian at home. 

A splay-fingered hand rested on the cart. I didn’t do that.

You sent Sheptytsky away. Is he still alive?

Kliment ducked inside his house. I didn’t do that either! he called back.

Oxana lifted a chair from Kliment’s cart. Your priest in the church. Your language in the schools. Isn’t that what you wanted?

No response.

Oxana heaved the chair. Kliment’s window gave way. No one on the street even glanced at her.

She waited for Kliment’s bellowing voice. There was not a sound from inside. So Oxana went through the black rectangle. In the room stood Kliment, his beard folded upon his chest, his fingers threaded in supplication. He was afraid of her.

Go, she said.

“None.” Eran prayed that his face remained neutral.

“It’s this simple,” Sunitha said, grinning. “Pretend.”

When the Russians occupied Galicia in September 1914, they instituted a policy of Russification on the local Ukrainian population, with the support of local Russophiles. This policy was aggressive, involving the imposition of Russian education and religion, and carried out by administrators who were often incapable and unloaded on the region by their home offices elsewhere in Russia. Austria-Hungary retook the region in June 1915. As a result, many local Russophiles fled to Russia.