The Centennial: February 1, 1915

It’s not enough. She nudged the cradle. It creaked on its rockers, wobbled on the uneven floorboards. Their corner apartment, ordinarily gemütlich, now felt like a rat’s cage.

We can make it enough, Silke. My father will put some aside when he slaughters his cattle.

How long can that last? Everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas. Now they’re saying June.

Her husband held his shoulders level. So they are. We can hold out until then.

Lothar – 

We can make it enough. We’ll be fine.

All over Hamburg, Silke knew, husbands and wives were saying the same things. Everyone had questions, no one had answers. Lothar believed. She had always loved the way Lothar’s mouth tightened when he was resolved. She hated his refusal to admit that he might be wrong. She would have to ask Anneliese and Marthe what they would do.

Worse than the rationing was the war. Russia was baying to the east, France and England entrenched to the west. Everything the country had hoped to avoid – two enemies, two fronts – had come to pass. When everyone had been so sure that the march to Paris would be enough – and now they were sure that things couldn’t last much longer.

Hermann slept in his cradle. She thought he would be safe. Everyone would want to protect a baby – share rations, if they must. But Lothar needed his strength for the docks. And she – well, she hadn’t yet told Lothar the reason she needed her strength.

“Right there? Was that it?”

“It was Germans. They were worried about whether they had enough food.” Eran shook his head. “How would America survive on rations?”

When Eran called, Gwendolyn had said, “I was hoping to hear from you!” Eran, Gwendolyn said, was her only successful past-life regression, and she wanted to hear all about it. She had offered him the hour free, since he wasn’t asking her to do any work. Instead of an appointment, they picked a weekend coffee at Bené, which was Sunday-morning frantic; they could talk without being overheard.

“It’s not helping with my dissertation like I had thought it would. I guess it is helping – it definitely broadened my perspective. But I’m supposed to be focusing in on one thing, and it keeps showing me other things that I also want to chase down. Politics. Treason. Now rationing.”

“How’s your advisor taking it? Stefan, was it?”

“Heh. Let me tell you about Stefan.”

February 1, 1915: Germany institutes a rationing system for bread and flour.

Rereading, Reviewed: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

A very distant acquaintance texted me her dissent from my post on rereading. She said she prefers rereading because most books aren’t very good, and it’s usually not worth the time it takes to sort out good new books from bad.

Which I actually agree with. If you’ve skimmed my reviews, you’ve noticed that there aren’t many books I like. Quality is rare, and must exist in many areas – prose, character, plot, pacing, originality, etc. – for an entire book to be good. I’m most willing to sacrifice plot and pacing, to a point, but eventually I’m going to cave in as well. So why, as I asked, don’t I spend more time rereading?

I have an answer now, because Invisible Man hasn’t been treating me very well. As I mentioned, I haven’t read it since college. So the rereading has been like opening a time capsule that I put together when I was twenty-two. And I’m not that person anymore. At the time, I hadn’t read many books written in the forties or fifties – most of my collection was Trainspotting or musty Victorian serials. I’ve filled in the gaps since then, and what used to seem like a unique otherworldly formality to Invisible Man‘s prose now just scans as generic. Then, I was relatively new to the Catcher in the Rye conceit of the sensitive, nervous young man ruined by the world, but now I’ve lived with two decades of a Cobain legend, and: less so.

I bond with bathroom books and refresh them continually. With other books, my reaction to them is tied deeply to what’s going on at the time. I once had a teacher who reread The Catcher in the Rye every year because, she said, she was so different each time she read it that the book was different too. Respect. But for me, a book is a non-sinister Horcrux, preserving in amber a piece of myself as I was at the encounter. I leave those pieces behind for a reason.

The Centennial: January 21, 1915

For all his Twitter literacy, Stefan had the Tolkien-iest professor’s office possible. Slabs of rough wood supported frotteuristic rows of first editions. Stefan hadn’t hesitated to mark even the rarities, as Eran could tell from a yellowed, scrawl-infested page stuck halfway under one row. (And the annotations were a shopping list. “Frappuccino / Arugula / Mad Men, season 2.”) A tuxedo hung in the open closet; a chrome-trimmed espresso machine layered with dust sat next to an empty Starbucks cup that was marked “PS / whip.”

“…fell far below the standards to which I hold myself,” Stefan was saying. He actually had his shirt buttoned all the way, and his blowsy hair tucked behind his ears. No cologne, either. “Arrest aside, I obviously made a spectacle of myself that was inappropriate. I embarrassed myself, Stephen – ”

“Who?”

“The [cough] soldier I was with.”

“…Okay.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to apologize. I’m hoping this won’t affect our working relationship.”

Eran had kept his mental scanner tuned for any mention of “If you ever tell anyone.” But it hadn’t come. He thought back over Stefan’s words. There was no game that he could see. “Have you ever read Gerald’s Game?”

Stefan froze. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that.”

It was cold; they were exhausted; all the winter particulars. Eran absorbed this in a flash. He was ashamed that he wrote off the suffering so quickly; then he realized those were the cold soldier’s thoughts. His friends were dead; he was out of ammunition; he was trying to keep himself steeled.

His name, impossibly, seemed to be Etienne.

They could see for miles. Etienne kept glancing down the snow-covered peak, then quickly back to a nearby tree. Eran felt his dizziness, felt his hands tighten on his gun as if it would hold him to the mountain.

They had dug in for a siege. The Germans were trying to dislodge them without another charge. Canavy had distributed the food and ammunition. They were all on alert.

Artillery pounded: again, the old particular. The soldier jumped. He had never liked this part.

Another soldier – red-faced, disheveled, his uniform darkened with blood – slid into cover beside him. Canavy is dead. They got our post. What do we do?

Etienne recalled Canavy’s face. To Eran, it was any other junior officer’s photograph. But the thought of the lieutenant, dead, put Etienne into a panic that he tried to use. Do you have bullets?

Yes!

Use them!

They were going to die. Eran wanted to tell them to do something else, anything. But what else could they do? He tried to open his mouth, but –

Stefan cleared his throat. “Is that – er – a book about history departments?”

“I’m sorry,” Eran said. He wanted to do only one thing, so he did it: he stood up, collected his bag, and left.

January 21, 1915: During winter operations in Alsace, the Germans mount the last in a series of assaults on the French-held Vosges peak of Hartmannswillerkopf. Starved of supplies, the French would surrender on January 22.

Rereading

Following my posts on first and last words, in both of which I quoted Ellison, I decided to reread Invisible ManI first read it, I think, my freshman year of college – nearly half a lifetime ago – and read it again for a lit class my senior year. I loved it both times. Since then, however, while it has stayed on the bookshelf everywhere I’ve lived, it hasn’t come down for a new look.

When it comes to me and rereading, there are two kinds of books. There are the accessible reads – let’s call them bathroom books – that I go through over and over, at least once a year. Harry PotterIt. Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted. Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town. They’re entertaining, don’t require much thought to understand, and still cover enough ground to suit many moods (try the early, light-hearted chapters of the Yarm, and compare to the later chapters where Kurt Cobain, Mia Zapata, and Layne Staley die). I can dip in and out of them, or select just the chapter I want and and read only that, and when I put the book away I’m satisfied with what I’ve seen.

Then there are the difficult reads. Not necessarily on the level of a Finnegans Wake, but the books that – even if they’re entertaining – require more attention, have their own personalities, defy evaluation. These are the vast majority of books on my shelf. Jean Rhys. Isaac Babel. I read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil back in high school, and while it utterly blew me away, I don’t know that I like it, or that it’s good. I know that I hadn’t run into a reading experience like that before and haven’t since, and the book has never left my shelf, but neither have I been compelled to give it a second look.

Invisible Man is in the latter category. So why’d I pick it up again? Partially I’m wondering if it’s possible for a book to move from the second category to the first. No book has ever managed it (I say, as if books were independent-thinking entities plotting out their careers of being read) – War and Peace, trashily readable but historically iconic, came the closest, but all those damn essays at the end negated the effort. But mostly I’m wondering why I don’t reread books more often. I’ve always thought that, given the flood of literature that is inundating the world, I’d rather seek out more unique first-time reading experiences than try to recreate the wheel. But maybe I’m just don’t want to confront all the stuff I skimmed over or misunderstood the first time through.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the read. Let’s see if it changes my mind.

The Centennial: January 18, 1914

Despite the winter cold, Eran was glad to be back in Minnesota. He had a class to prepare for, bills to pay, and dirt to share.

Effective dirt, judging by the gaping O of Mildred’s mouth.

“So did you see…you know…” Mildred extended a single finger out from her latte cup. They were at the Bean Factory on Randolph, meeting to finalize the preparations for their spring courses. Eran was going to repeat his Soviet Union experiment – “Glutton for punishment,” he shrugged when Mildred asked. Mildred was assisting Xiaoyu again, and claimed to be thinking of switching advisers.

“I didn’t see ‘you know,’ but only because the soldier’s mouth was in the way.”

“And that was the first time your parents had met him?”

“Yeah, why not? It’s not like he’s my inspiration and I was bringing him around for dinner.”

“Did he recognize you?”

“Sorta, but he was pretty drunk. He told me I could go next, but the Army guy didn’t seem to like that idea.”

“Just – right there, in the whirlpool? How did the police handle it?”

“They let the soldier go, and said they were taking Stefan in for questioning. And would you believe it – was his phone call. He said he didn’t have anyone else to turn to.”

Damn.” Mildred had to set her cup down. “You’ve just guaranteed the smoothest dissertation review of any PhD student ever.”

Eran tapped the table for emphasis. “Now here’s the worst part. My mom had rented the car, so she drove to the police station, and the first thing she asked Stefan was if he’d ever ‘you know’ with me.”

Mildred got her hand up to her mouth just in time to cough latte all over it. “Oh, to be a fly on that wall.”

He was a nothing functionary in an important room. It was China, maybe? It had been a while. Tsingtao.

The functionary – a younger man, Eran thought, newly proximal to power – was alone with a man, a desk, and light. The man – Yuan - had a leaderly puffiness and a pompous mustache that aligned him with the Colonel Blimps of the Western Front. With a start, Eran realized that the derision wasn’t his alone. The host burned, and framed that burning as anger. Eran took it as shame.

On the desk, in the light, lay a document. It was written in Chinese. When the host’s eyes fell glancingly upon it, Eran realized that he could read it. Yuan paced the room, speaking of stalling, buying time, but Eran clung to the host’s peripheral vision and read snatches of the document where he could.

China to recognize Japan’s dominance in Manchuria and Mongolia? Japan asking China to preserve its own integrity by refusing to lease coastal lands? China to protect the Han-Yeh-Ping company due to its relationship with Japanese capitalists? Eran, no skilled hand at diplomacy, had still read enough about European imperialism to understand the document’s tenor?

A melancholy had settled into the host. To him Yuan’s speech seemed like wind: no substance, a fleeting effect. To Eran Yuan seemed to believe what he said. Possibly the host was seeing limits for the first time. Contingencies. Unjust outcomes. They could still find a way.

“What did he answer?” Mildred asked, and Eran realized, as he spilled back into his body, that Mildred needed the same answer his mother had.

“No! Of course not. Stefan said that. And then she looked at me and said that.”

What Eran knew about Eastern Hemisphere history could be recited in one breath. But there it was: Japan and China, that long tension, squalling before the later storm. Like an Old Testament prefiguring of Christ, it was an early look at a war that would be born out of the ashes of the war that had barely started. It was as though, if a large enough blow destabilized one part of the world, then anything could happen, anywhere.

January 18, 1915: Japan presents its Twenty-One Demands to China, seeking greater sway over the latter nation. While China ultimately assented to a revised agreement, Japan saw its international standing damaged as a result.

The Centennial: January 10, 1915

Enough beautiful weather could drive a man to murder. Even when it rained, Hawaii was beautiful. Eran could get soaked to the skin and still be comfortable. It had hardly rained. Murder.

Familial togetherness made it easier…to murder his family. They had spent about five minutes apart since arriving. They had strolled up and down the streets of Waikiki, Ian and Cam ducking into stores whose air Eran couldn’t afford to breathe; they had done Diamond Head, Eran lagging behind the group on the incline (his parents regularly did 10Ks); they had done the Arizona memorial, Eran’s father constantly calling, “Stay together!” His parents had sprung for his own room, but they summoned him for 7 a.m. breakfasts and kept him in their sight until the luaus ended.

So when Eran’s parents, Ian, and Cam decided to tour the other islands by helicopter, Eran pleaded exhaustion. Not until Ian texted that the copter was taking off did he breathe a sigh of relief and sink back into his pillows.

He walked out onto the balcony and looked over the railing, letting thirty stories of gravity tug on his head. At that altitude, perspective reminded him of the dismayed skeletons in the original Tomb Raider, and how they appeared to stand upright no matter which angle the camera took. His family, Eran thought, had done nothing wrong. He was just tired of Waikiki. The only souvenir he had bought, just to say he bought something, was a tourist-trap turtle whose resin head would probably break off in his luggage on the flight back. And there was nothing to do but shop and watch cable.

He didn’t like this living in the lap of luxury while, a hundred years parallel, men froze in trenches on the Western Front.

He was high above the iron-gray Channel. They had been bound for London, or at least Dover, but had been turned back by the wind. Even now it buffeted his plane; he could feel the controls shuddering. He was winging toward a coast – France, he thought, reading the host’s mental radio. The host had separated from his squadron, but Eran could see them converging with him over the land.

Eran hated flying, but only because of security and boarding. He was indifferent to being in the air. His host, however, loved it – was barely restraining himself from attempting loops and rolls. Eran guessed he would have to; his life expectancy was probably weeks.

The new target, he thought, was Dunkirk. The name conjured such a different war that Eran had an out-of-body experience within his out-of-body experience. He half-thought he was there to airlift the British away from the coast and back to home territory. But he remembered, or felt the host remember, his payload of bombs.

The anti-aircraft fire had started, but the host skittered among the blasts without harm. He found his target and released. The plane shook, birthing bombs. Suddenly winging was easier, as when Eran crested a hill in his sputtering Camry and the car relaxed on the downslope.

Joining his squadron, heading for the outskirts of the city, the host threw a streamer over the side. Eran caught the word “Poincaré” as the streamer unfurled.

In a flash Eran was back on the balcony. The height, so much less than that seen from the plane, made his knees buckle. Had he killed anyone? How would a pilot even know?

January 10, 1915: German biplanes, unable to cross the English Channel, bomb Dunkirk instead.

The Centennial: December 25, 1914

Another gray, rainy, Pacific Northwestern week. The weather was enough to make Eran think he was living the 1914 life. In the absence of a muddy trench filled to the waist with frostbite-inducing water, though, he really wasn’t.

His family was set to leave for Hawaii on Saturday. New Year’s in Honolulu. Eran was looking forward to some sun, some rain that wasn’t freezing. In the meantime, in bed, he meant to pick up his head and look out the window. It might, against all odds, be a white Christmas. But each time he thought better of it. He was waiting for the Christmas truce.

There would never, Eran thought, be another one in modern warfare. It wasn’t about the myth of the prewar world, its unadulterated glamour and nobility, the pastoral Lord of the Rings innocence. It was that the battle lines and combatant divisions didn’t seem clear enough that two great, opposing, defined entities could set aside their differences and come together. They were always swirling among each other, rubbing elbows, sharing cigarettes. “Ceasefire” meant no official action: it meant only that no one was firing, for the moment. “Peace” meant “quiet.”

Or maybe the live-and-let-live spirit always existed, and Eran just didn’t hear about it.

It was an unofficial football match. Eran felt sure that he was near Ypres. His host, unable to play – frostbite? or lack of skill? – was watching from the unofficial sidelines. The “ball,” what looked like a khaki rucksack stuffed with pajamas, skittered easily across the ground. A German scored with a kick past the lone remaining segment of a farm fence. Their side raised fists in victory.

The German beside him, who also couldn’t play, was from Munich, but had relatives in England and had spent time in Hertfordshire as a child. (Eran immediately visualized productions of Pride and Prejudice and, for some reason, the white cliffs of Dover.) As a result, the German – Lothar – was fluent in English, and even sounded like some of the host’s relatives.

But I never learned how to ride, Lothar was saying. I couldn’t have made it in your cavalry.

How can you not know how to ride? The host – his name, Eran thought, was Eadric – sounded indignant. Probably a true believer in the supremacy of cavalry and cold steel. He continued: No, after we win this war –

After we win this war, Lothar insisted. They both laughed. The rucksack had become wedged into a frozen crevice at the rim of a shell hole. British and German soldiers mingled in trying to kick it out.

After the war is won, you’ll have to come back. I’ll even – Eran caught a bloom of overflowing good will – I’ll even introduce you to my sister. Perhaps you’ll fall in love.

They roared. But, Lothar said, we both have to live.

Eran tensed, waiting for Eadric’s response.

He found himself back in his own bed.

December 25, 1914: An unofficial Christmas truce is declared and combatants fraternize in various sectors of the fronts.