The Centennial: October 28, 1915

Fish or cut bait. Astoundingly, Eran would fish.

Stefan had once again offered Eran extra funding for the spring. Eran was starting to think Stefan meant to buy not his silence but his body. Eran wasn’t selling, but as his internship had given him an escape route, he took the money. One semester, no teaching – take four courses, and he’d be ready for his exam.

Eran strongly suspected he would feel differently about continuing once he scheduled the exam. But given his escape route, school felt less like prison. It was good enough for now.

In his carrel, Eran logged in to check the course listings for the spring. The English department was running seminars on the war poets and on postwar modernism. That’d round out his extradepartmental study. As for history – recent European nationalism, and maybe African social history. Maybe he’d even take a fifth class…

He was high off the ground…waving. The familiar sensation of being a passenger. A slim body in impeccable uniform, the hand in leather glove – hadn’t he been this person before?

A crowd generated a roar. The world tilted. The body seemed to know what to do. Eran understood that this had happened before; that it was dangerous, threatening; that the body was an expert. The body handled the reins – they were on horseback – and brought the world back into alignment.

And then the world shook itself into an angle again. The body lost the grip.

They were flying. Eran wondered if he would feel the pain.

He didn’t, but the body did. Shock, white exploded. Eyes wide, sightless. It was like falling into a dead man’s chariot, and being carried forward.

There were helping hands everywhere. Despite them, Eran sensed that the body couldn’t breathe. Was it the wind knocked out of him? Feeling that across the century? The body swayed, hands around for support, and somehow boarded the motor-car. The last duty: wave.

The body waved.

Eran shook it off. Him again? Of all the people to repeat. That was a weird one. Seems as thought it should have meant something.

October 28, 1915: King George V is thrown from his horse while reviewing troops on the Western Front. He fractures his pelvis in two places; the incident may also have contributed to the eventual decline of his health

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.