Sunday, October 18, 2015

Two stories on art and ugly politics

Title: Portrait of the Avant-Garde
Author: Peter H√łeg
Translator: Barbara Haveland
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

In the years leading up to WWII, Simon is intoxicated with his power as an artist. He sees his paintings as a way to remake the world. In his mind, he is a mini-god, wielding fire and air. He throws himself behind vicious political movements in Europe, because they promote a new order, a vision that appeals to him. He thinks of the process more than the consequences. The costs don't occur to him, because as a powerful artist he isn't a common person; he imagines he can stand astride the world and comfortably watch it burn.

To balance out the insufferable Simon, there's Nina, his lover. She's earth and water to his fire and air. She takes him to visit a remote island where she grew up. People move slowly there; things change slowly or not at all. Simon hears a myth about a warrior's power expressed in a dream, with the power dissolving when the warrior awakes. And then there are the final scenes, where he finally experiences what it is to be small, to have others impervious to his gestures and to the ideas he constructs. In one sense, the world remains his stage, but the audience doesn't watch him with admiration or terror.

Title: The Twenty-seventh Man
Author: Nathan Englander
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

Stalin's police have rounded up a bunch of Jewish writers, and the story focuses on four of them who share a cell. One is an author who sold out to the regime and wrote government propaganda. The second is an old revered Yiddish writer. The third is a great bear of a poet, both soulful and crude. And the fourth, the twenty-seventh man, isn't known to anyone and was most likely arrested because of a fluke, a clerical error. He's spent his life quietly writing stories in his parents' inn; while they are interesting stories, he has made no effort to publish them or otherwise make a name for himself.

This is a nonsensical, brutal situation, and Englander understands the absurdity of it. There's no compelling reason for these writers to get arrested. And they know they're facing death. As they share a cell, their conversation raises questions about why people write and who they write for (this is set after WWII, and the old Yiddish writer, for example, knows full well that most of his audience has been slaughtered). What meaning do words have when you're a few hours away from facing a firing squad? People with wisdom, talent, and regrets try to make sense of their impending death.

(Who is listening? At the very least, they're hearing each other out, and what is that worth? Depending on how you look at it, it could be worth very little or could mean everything in the world. Final flickers from creative minds about to be extinguished. Maybe they can still give each other a reason to live even when they're about to die.)