The Centennial: September 18, 1914

Over the summer, despite the weight of war memories pressing down on him, Eran had held it together pretty well. He had nearly stumbled over that first vision in class, but saved himself. MRI and parent-mandated counseling aside, he hadn’t brought any consequences down on his head. He had just about gotten used to it.

Then his regular schedule started. Teaching, students, Stefan’s performance-heavy Versailles-to-Sudetenland seminar, and Stefan’s comments in their one-on-one. “Your ‘Domestic and Western Front Origins of Postwar British Pacifism’ paper should be a chapter in your dissertation…When will I see an outline?…How will you keep up with Mildred this year?” All while waiting to Bakula into the next body.

Every moment that he spent on campus, Eran expected Stefan or Mildred to Notice: What’s wrong with you? / You don’t look well. / Have you considered a leave of absence? Or a passing campus security officer: Excuse me, sir? / Can I call an escort for you? / I’ll walk you to Boynton. He would have been found out earlier if Kyle, his closest friend in the cohort, hadn’t gone AWOL and incommunicado, his Facebook and Twitter accounts dead. An ABD eighth-year Eran had never met was handling Kyle’s class. In their weekly meetings, Xiaoyu chortled to Mildred and the other TAs that Stefan had been hauled up before the DGS to explain himself. But even being low on the priority list, he still expected to be found out. His closing, lockable carrel had become his prime hangout.

There was one benefit. Stress led to apathy, which made drafting a shitty dissertation outline a breeze.

Chapter 1: Haig = butthead

Chapter 2: On the origin of buttheads

Chapter 3: How does a butthead function in polite military society?

Chapter 4: blah blah blah 1916

Chapter 5: Domestic and Western Front Origins of Postwar British Pacifism

Conclusion: he’s dead

Maybe not that shitty. And

Beyers and Kemp out, de la Rey: it had nothing to do with him but it felt bad bad bad. Cape Town had dissolved three days and hundreds of miles of ocean past, overwhelmed by desert or waves or somehow both. There would be nothing to go back to.

The thoughts poured over Eran in a rush. He had barely translated them when the next sensation hit. His host had joined the army instead of the navy for a simple reason: seasickness. A full pail was at his feet. Eran knew he had been dragging it around for two days, in case a deck rail wasn’t convenient when it needed to be. The ocean could have been wind-whipped or it could have been violently calm: he was keeping his head down either way. He missed the bicycle infantry days.

(Eran had always wished he had an eidetic memory. He needed a Google frenzy upon reentry. He tried reciting names and terms that floated through. Bicycle infantry? Beyers? But the brain he was in dragged his brain inexorably onward, as if Eran were pushing bootlessly against the left screen during one of those scrolling Mario levels.)

It wasn’t only sickness. Any moment he expected to hear that the scouting party had been lost. Probably killed. Disappeared into a German vortex.

Chatter. What? Eran felt him(self) ask, head still between his knees.

Someone – a gravel-voiced someone, whom the host disliked with an intense neurochemical bloom – took pity on him: All clear, they say. No enemy in sight.

It was Amiens all over again. 7500 miles away, the same damn thing.

Returned to his carrel, Eran scribbled for a good hour. Names. Dates. Questions. Google results. He scanned over his outline. Maybe not Haig? Maybe it was finding how these different wars – Western, Eastern, Balkan, Asian, African – fit together? A grand unifying theory, even if he were wrong?

Eran wrote: Yes.

September 18, 1914: Advance scouts of the Union of South Africa’s Force C landed at Lüderitz, in modern Namibia, and found that the Germans had withdrawn.

Review: Beth Gutcheon, Domestic Pleasures

If I had hazarded a guess when I did the Reads-in-Progress, I would’ve said that Blindness would stay middlebrow-mediocre while Domestic Pleasures would run itself into the ground. Shows what I know. The mediocrity of Blindness ended up irritating me as much as any Ed Wood craptastrophe, while the rut into which Domestic Pleasures settled is smooth and entertaining.

So Beth Gutcheon is basically Elinor Lipman, with the crisp dialogue, the domestic focus, and the easily attainable literary goals. Once Gutcheon stopped doing things that bothered me – like introducing a new perspective character every five pages – the book was able to blossom. Connie’s final breakaway from her useless, blowhard husband is a pleasant revelation, as is Patsy’s newfound maturity. If anything rings false, it’s the lives of the teenagers, Phoebe and Jack. Gutcheon isn’t quite able to transcend the generational divide, so neither child has any recognizable core, nor are they such Heathcliff originals that they merit further study.

I wouldn’t go seeking out Gutcheon’s other works or anything, but I’d read them if they were around. Worth taking on an airplane, anyway.

The Centennial: September 14, 1914

On the small stone bridge, in the very middle, lay a toppled pickelhaube with a hole through the crown. The street beside it was marked with a dark stain.

Eran’s host felt a surge of unwelcome sympathy for a particular German.

In the twilight, Amiens was reverently hushed. Impossibly, the violence had left no echo. Eran flashed back to the lonely king smoking outside his palace at dusk, seeking noise.

The town could have looked worse, but it could look better.

His host seemed to be a shopkeeper, a late-life wife with a young daughter and a husband who had joined up. She kept thinking of ledgers, a doll-like face, and Etienne of the silken mustache.

She spun to see it all and Eran spun with her, taking in the river, the rubble, the quiet: Amiens regained. So much had already happened. This would be the Allies’ hub, the nerve center of the war, with one more great battle, four years on, to mark the beginning of the end.

“Eran? Stefan’s ready for you.”

In the department’s office, Eran had been doodling in the corner of his notebook. A dark infinity symbol was nearly pressed through the page. He shuffled together his books and went in.

September 14, 1914: The French retake Amiens, which had been occupied by the Germans during their drive to Paris. Amiens, a railway hub, was strategically important to the Allies through the remainder of the war.

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.