Category Archives: fine arts

Amanda Gorman rose to the occasion

Occasional poetry is verse written to be read or declaimed aloud: for instance, at a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, a coronation–or an inauguration.

Several genres won’t work for these purposes. For instance, the audience probably doesn’t have time for an epic or a ballad. Satire is not what the patron expects, at least not at a funeral or an inauguration.

Lyric verse is also problematic. Lyric poetry since the Romantic period has often aspired to authenticity: the author’s distinctive personality becomes concrete in words. But an occasion is not about the poet. If the poet’s sincere emotion happens to be completely aligned with the event, lyric can work. That can happen at a wedding or a funeral if the poet is a dear friend. But politics is less personal. How many poets are fully committed, to the bottom of their souls, to the presidency of Joseph R. Biden Jr.?

Another major direction has been irony and indirection. A lyric poem doesn’t plainly say what the author thinks; it demands intense interpretive work from the audience. But that won’t work for an occasion, especially a mass event dominated by speeches. The last thing we want at an inauguration is any text that is easy to misinterpret by careless or hostile listeners. Clarity is essential. Although lyric verse can be impressively clear about the concrete objects that it describes, it is rarely clear about the implications.

Some styles of lyric poetry do work well for occasional purposes. For example, in the era of Dryden and Pope, English lyric poetry did not usually aim for authenticity, originality, or ambiguity. Poetry was more often an art of elegant expression. Many poems stated conventional opinions, but with excellent use of formal properties that listeners were prepared to appreciate–clever rhymes and classical rhetorical devices.

Thus (Royall Sir,) to see you landed here
Was cause enough of triumph for a year:
Nor would your care those glorious joyes repeat
Till they at once might be sure and great...

Dryden, "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation" (1662)

According to Elliott Colla, “Occasional poetry remains … more central in non-Western traditions such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.” But in English, the neoclassicism of Dryden and Pope has been little admired. Some astute critics recognize its quality, but very few active poets aspire to write in that vein.

In fact, Romantic and modern lyric poetry is anti-occasional, in the sense that it is written by an autonomous individual for the private consumption of other private individuals, dispersed in time and place. When it seems occasional, it fails (except if that appearance is ironic.)

Most of the previous poems at US presidential inaugurations have dissatisfied me in one of two ways. Some have been genuine lyric poems that fell flat when delivered through a microphone to a mass audience. Robert Frost prepared a somewhat wry commentary in verse about occasional poetry but couldn’t see his text in the bright sunlight and declaimed a lyric instead. Others have essentially been speeches with irregular line breaks. But it is not clear why a poet is qualified to give a speech at a major political event. The poet is a formal craftsperson, not an expert on policy.

One exception was Maya Angelou, who spoke as a leading public intellectual as much as a poet. I thought her poem was basically a speech, albeit with more of a fictional narrative spine. In any case, she enriched the 1993 inauguration.

Amanda Gorman has the advantage of working in the tradition of spoken word poetry: verse written for public performance and usually drawing on oral genres, from folk stories to hip hop. Spoken word is occasional verse; it is written to be performed at events.

Gorman didn’t give a prose speech, because her words were carefully chosen for rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance:

This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power

She accentuated those formal properties in her performance. Indeed, her performance was much better than the words on the page, and that is intrinsic to the genre. (In contrast, T.S. Eliot does a poor job reciting his poems.)

Gorman wrote for the occasion–words that would be useful for Biden and Harris and for Americans of good will who were watching the event. She didn’t necessarily disclose all that she believes about the new administration or the country. (I have no basis to speculate about her full beliefs.) Nevertheless, she was authentic as a performer, much as Lady Gaga gave an authentic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” or Anya Taylor-Joy poured herself into the role of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Each of these people chose to support the event at which they starred.

This is not to doubt Gorman’s words, but to take them as “occasional” in the best sense of the word. What the nation needed on this occasion was to hear this particular person reassure us that:

Somehow we do it
 Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
 a nation that isn't broken
 but simply unfinished ...

revolutionary art without a revolution: remembering the eighties

When the 1980s began, I was a nerdy little white boy in middle school in the rapidly de-industrializing Rust Belt city of Syracuse, NY. When it ended, I was a grad. student in England, but I had lived in New Haven, London, Florence, and New York City. I was interested in classical music and the history of (European) philosophy and was pretty much the opposite of hip. However, I walked around with my eyes and ears open, and my friends were less nerdy than I. So I went in tow to venues like CBGB or Dingwalls. Much more often, I rode graffitied subway cars or watched breakdancers with boom boxes.

Two recent exhibitions have brought back the aesthetics of that period and helped me to understand it a bit better.

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw were a decade older than me and from further north in the Rustbelt (Michigan), but I recognize the world they grew up in. They collected doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher wasn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They imitated that material and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.* I got to see samples of their work in “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum).

Born 6-8 years later than Shaw and Kelley, but famous when he was very young, Jean-Michel Basquiat mashed up Gray’s Anatomy (the book), old master paintings, documents from Black history, graphic symbols, sci-fi, jazz album covers, expressionist and pop art, found objects, and graffiti to make his groundbreaking work, which is featured in the Boston MFA’s Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation.

Basquiat’s drawings and paintings are very striking, but it’s possible that the music videos steal the show. In Blondie’s Rapture (1981), which you can watch any time on YouTube, Basquiat is the DJ because Grandmaster Flash failed to show up for the filming. As Debbie Henry switches from punk to rap, she sings:

Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s high
DJ’s spinnin’ are savin’ my mind
Flash is fast, Flash is cool
Francois sez fas, Flashe’ no do

That Haitian creole must be for Basquiat. Henry was the first person to purchase one of Basquiat’s works. It was news to me how closely punk and rap were intertwined.

Six years before this video, New York City had narrowly averted municipal bankruptcy. The subway had the highest crime rate of any mass transit system in the world and suffered from severe maintenance problems. A big part of the reason that graffiti artists could live in squats in lower Manhattan and paint whole trains was the economic crisis of the city. Meanwhile, the US auto industry that had sustained both urban Michigan and my Upstate New York hometown was shedding jobs. Between 1978 and 1982, 43% of automotive jobs (about half a million positions) were lost. No wonder Henry sings:

You go out at night, eatin’ cars
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too
Mercury’s and Subaru’s
And you don’t stop, you keep on eatin’ cars

“Rapture” was filmed in the deep recession year of 1981, when the Dow was down along with the rest of the economy. But as the decade progressed, markets rebounded and the culture celebrated finance—more, I would say, than industry or small business. It was the decade of Wall Street. And Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park is just 2.4 miles from Tomkins Square Park, the center of the bohemia portrayed in “Rapture.”

Basquiat’s art is explicitly anti-capitalist. I assume that artists who covered whole subway cars with their work considered the government that owned those trains as basically illegitimate and proposed a different form of ownership. Yet Basquiat started to make a lot of money in Manhattan gallery shows. Several of his close associates also moved from the economic margin to the center of the economic universe. For instance, in 1983, Basquiat and his girlfriend Madonna lived together in the Venice, CA studio of the art dealer Larry Gagosian (later known as “Go-Go” for his business acumen). Madonna was a legitimate member of the same bohemia as Basquiat, but she was on her way to selling 300 million records as the Material Girl. Even “Rapture,” which depicts a bunch of East Villagers who wouldn’t have a lot of money in their pockets, was beamed into millions of suburban rec. rooms through MTV.

Race was another dynamic. In places like Syracuse, Black/white racial integration reached its historic high. The school district implemented an ambitious desegregation plan. The ratio of African Americans to whites in the city’s population was also more balanced than it is in today’s “hyper-segregated” metro area. Syracuse has lost 35% of its population since 1950 in a process of suburbanization and re-segregation that was just getting started in the ’80s. Kelley and Shaw were white, and their musical genre was punk, but you can observe them admiring their Black counterparts from close up. Basquiat became famous in a predominantly white world but remained socially very close to Black and Caribbean New Yorkers. There was money to be made packaging rap for white teenagers, and money to be made subverting Reagan’s America in art or music.

A hostile critic would charge the ’80s bohemians with hypocrisy or even nihilism. (Those trains didn’t belong to them; most citizens preferred a subway without graffiti.) But I see pathos. This was revolutionary art without a revolution, an expression of left radicalism at a time when the deep cultural movement was rightward.

*this paragraph is self-plagiarized from Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence.

Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin

Both the Mishna (Sanhedrin, 4) and the Quran (5:32) advise that to kill one person is like killing all human beings.* The Mishna says that God created humanity in the form of one original person to remind us of that fact. It means that when Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell’s head chopped off on July 28, 1540, Henry destroyed a whole world.

Hilary Mantel proves this fundamental moral truth by richly imagining the inner life of the Tudor politician in the three volumes of her Wolf Hall trilogy. The main character (almost always called “he,” without a name), progresses through time and interacts with other people like an ordinary fictional protagonist, but often the narration traces his mind as it jumps to the past or envisions possible futures. Much of the trilogy is devoted to daydreams.

Cromwell is an unlikely candidate to be liked–a shrewd and sometimes ruthless political actor, a Protestant fundamentalist (in our terms), and a royalist. He’s also poorly documented. Most people have seen him as the villain or–at best–the cipher who killed Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. His portrait by Hans Holbein makes him seem private and distant. He is literally set further away than Holbein’s other subjects.

I’m guessing that is why Mantel chose him: to exercise her genius for sympathetic imagination. She must invent most of his past and his inner life, presenting a whole subjective world that would otherwise be opaque. We care for Cromwell not because we agree with him or have behaved like him, but because we can see a whole world through his eyes.

Mantel’s imagination is extraordinary, whether she is conjuring ordinary physical things like plums and footstools or spinning stories around the documented facts. Just for example, Elizabeth Seymour is sure she has been chosen to marry Thomas Cromwell. But he has invited her to marry his son. They talk at cross-purposes for a whole conversation until the awkward misunderstanding dawns on both of them. Who but Mantel would have thought to insert that twist?

In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explores a distinction between a story and a novel. A story is succinct, vivid, subject to many interpretations, meant to be remembered in full and retold to others. It is a communal object, recited orally to a group of people who enjoy each other’s company as they listen and speak in turn.

In contrast, a novel is profoundly individual, a silent communication from one author to one reader at a time. It provides so much detail and interpretation that the reader’s creativity is constrained by the author’s intentions; and it’s too long and carefully constructed to be paraphrased, let alone memorized and retold. Although novels have diverse subjects, the classic topic is one person’s inner life as he or she progresses toward a conclusion; and the clearest conclusion is death. Don Quixote is the “first great book of the genre.”

The novel arises once words can be mass produced for private consumption. It is a capitalist object, meant for a market. It also arises when people become truly afraid of death–not just of dying, but of observing and talking about death. “Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one.” But in the bourgeois 19th century, “the general consciousness the thought of death … declined in omnipresence and vividness.” The novel fills a gap by allowing us to imagine the death of an individual who is safely fictional as a way of contemplating our own mortality.

In a story, the hero is admirable beyond realism but hard to imagine from the inside. In a novel, the protagonist is flawed, and the more you read, the more flaws you see. Don Quixote “teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and do not contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom.” Yet we identify with the protagonist because her or his life functions like ours. Any life is a vast array of experiences, memories, and hopes, banal in their totality but unique in their details. A novel consoles us by implying that our life, too, is worthy. Benjamin says:

To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

A life is coherent because the present person has memories of her or his own past. Each of us has a unique collection of memories, and we are sufficiently attached to it that we are sad to think it will vanish with our deaths. We vainly counter that fate with monuments and memoirs and by boring children with our recollections. But a novel allows us to see someone else’s memories as a permanent object:

“No one,” Pascal once said, “dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.” Surely it is the same with memories too—although these do not always find an heir. The novelist takes charge of this bequest, and seldom without profound melancholy. …

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

Benjamin means to criticize the novel and lament the decline of the story. But his real target is capitalism, and the novel gets caught in the crossfire. Certainly, he understands what an achievement a novel is. And none seems to fit his theory better than Mantel’s trilogy.

Particularly as Cromwell approaches his end, he seems obsessive about cataloging his past, as if he could leave it as a coherent legacy. He thinks:

All your life you tramp the empty road with the wind at your back. You are hungry and your spirit is perturbed as you journey on into the gloom. But when you get to your destination the doorkeeper knows you. A torch goes before you as you cross the court. Inside there is a fire and a flask of wine, there is a candle and beside the candle your book. You pick it up and find your place is marked. You sit down by the fire, open it, and begin your story. You read on, into the night.

This scene of reading is exactly how Benjamin understands the novel, in general. It is a private experience of taking stock of a life to persuade oneself that it has meaning, even though each of us is but one among billions and fated to vanish.

Benjamin would probably emphasize that Thomas Cromwell was an early bourgeois, building a commercial commonwealth at the expense of the aristocracy and the clergy. Mantel describes foreign and court politics more than domestic policy, but the novel probably conveys–and it is plausibly true–that Cromwell revolutionized English society along bourgeois lines. That would make him a perfect choice for the protagonist of a Benjamin-style novel.

Benjamin doesn’t mention that Quixote is about two men, not one. So is the Wolf Hall trilogy. Cromwell tells Henry:

“What would I want with the Emperor, were he the emperor of all the world? Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”

Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light. He says, “You know, Crumb, I may from time to time reprove you. I may belittle you. I may even speak roughly.”

He bows.

“It is for show,” Henry says. “So they think we are divided.”

As this passage suggests, Cromwell and Henry are mirror and light to each other. We can see their relationship either way, Cromwell reflecting the royal will or Henry shining because of Cromwell’s brilliance. Cromwell can also see himself as a combination of the mirror and the light. “The silver plate, reflecting himself to himself: the mirror and the light of all councillors that are in Christendom.”

As in the original master-slave dialectic, Henry needs Cromwell as much as vice-versa. Both are appealing in their respective ways, mixing needs and interests with a strong sense of responsibility. Each embodies his proper role–much like Archbishop Cranmer, who “does what is in him. It is all any man can do.”

It’s important that the trilogy is historical fiction. Mantel gives us access to an unfamiliar objective world along with an unfamiliar subjectivity. The implication is that a lifeworld can survive for five hundred years after the observer dies; maybe the same can happen to you or me. Yet the result feels fragile and precious, dependent on Cromwell’s survival as a character and Mantel’s art. That fragility charges the novel with suspense even though most readers will have a pretty good sense of how things must end. (Well, it’s how all things must end.)

Mantel has invented a diction to summon the world of her novel: 21st-century English that closely describes 16th-century England, with a dose of free indirect discourse (third-person narration that adopts some of the tone of the character being described). Clear anachronisms are rare and may be mistakes. “Why do we not, as the tennis players say, cut to the chase?” asks Ambassador Chapuys, using a phrase that originated in early Hollywood. Several characters refer wittily to the sentence, “Et in Arcadia ego,” which was coined ca. 1618. And Cromwell’s thought, “Florence made me … London unmade me,” suggests a reference to Purgatorio, V. 133, which only became famous after 1800. If these are flaws, they are tiny, and perhaps it’s best to think of the book as a loose translation of 16th century speech into modern English.

In sum, Mantel seeks to build something that is a terrible shame to end. That is exactly what we should say about any human life: even the life of a renaissance courtier who had many other people’s deaths on his conscience. In this sense, the novel is a moral achievement as well as a creative one.

*I ignore knotty questions about these two texts and how they relate. Most of the online commentary about them is sectarian and uncharitable toward other people’s faiths. Let’s assume that many Jews and many Moslems have read these passages in the way I am suggesting here.

See also: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies; history and fiction in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety; Calvino’s free hyper-indirect discourse; and Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life (with a digression on Benjamin and the importance of death in the novel). My own effort at a Tudor novel is The Anachronist. Finally, Clair Wills offers a much less favorable review in The New York Review. I don’t share her verdict, but she makes significant points.

Shelley: England in 1819

England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one sentence. Minus the adjectives and adjectival phrases, it says: “A king, princes, rulers, people, army, laws, religion, and senate are graves from which a phantom may burst to illumine our day.” (It’s interesting that one phantom will arise from all these separate graves.)

The “king” is George III, suffering by now from advanced dementia. He has seven surviving sons, which would be the narrowest definition of “princes.” But Shelley could mean a broader category–“princes” in the sense of the crowned heads of Europe. They are back on their thrones after Waterloo, erecting a system of reactionary absolutism that will last until 1830.

“Rulers” would mean the whole government, starting with the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who suspended civil liberties from 1817-19. The “people” are suffering from the Corn Laws (which prohibit importation of grain) and early industrialization. The “army” refers to the cavalry who charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform (the Peterloo massacre of August 16). The “senate” is parliament, although I don’t quite follow how that noun relates to “Time’s worst statute.” And the “Phantom” is something like liberty.

The situation is bad but unsustainable. The rulers may be evil, but they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The army wields a two-edged sword, liable to slice its own bearer. The people, however, seem passive: they think and do nothing in particular but are “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.” The Phantom may (or may not) burst forth; it’s not clear that the people can decide that.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen 10-syllable lines, rhymed, with a final couplet that answers the question posed by the rest of the poem: What will happen? However, the form is not strictly conventional. Shelley uses just four endings (-ing, -ow, -ield, and -ay) in an ABABAB CDCD CC scheme.

Christopher Spaide says that the poem was too radical to publish in 1819. By the time Mary Shelley included it in Shelley’s posthumous Poetical Works (1839), she thought it needed an explanation, since the “younger generation … cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” In other words, the sonnet went from revolutionary to quaint in 20 years–not because an actual revolution ensued in Britain, but because the political situation mellowed as reforms eased the crises of the day. No Phantom burst, but the laws arguably became less sanguine and the people less likely to be starved and stabbed.

See also Brecht, To Future Generations.

Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

Ivo Andric,* the 1961 Nobel Laureate in Literature, wrote the book variously translated as Bosnian Chronicle or The Days of the Consuls during WWII. It depicts his hometown, Travnik in Bosnia, during the years 1807-1813. I read it as translated by Joseph Hitrec (New York, Arcade, 1963).

Andric introduces scores of characters clustered in seven main groups: the “Begs” (Ottoman chiefs), the Vizier’s court, the French consulate, the Austrian consulate, the Franciscan monastery, the bazaar, and the Sephardic Jewish community.

He describes relationships between pairs of people within these clusters and from one cluster to another. For the most part, these interactions take the form of bilateral meetings and conversations, but there are other formats as well. For instance, an important character in the French consulate, Desfosses, has a largely wordless flirtation with the wife of the Austrian consul. At various points, the French consul sees across the darkened town the candlelight from the Austrian consulate and from a Moslem mausoleum: a physical manifestation of links between clusters.

These interactions create a dense lattice, and I have the sense that they are arranged carefully, with symmetry and other forms of rhythm. I have not taken the time to explore the whole pattern carefully, but, for example, the Prologue and the Epilogue both describe conversations among the Begs, who otherwise rarely speak to anyone. There are 28 chapters, and the 14th tells of the sexual crisis between Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife, thus linking the French and Austrian consulates in a debacle of misunderstanding.

In the first chapter, the newly arrived French consul, Daville, receives a cold welcome from the people of Travnik. His “little cavalcade passed through the town arousing little or no interest among the Travnichani. The Moslems pretended not to see it, while the Christians dared not show undue attention.”

In the final chapter, Daville and a Travnik Jew named Solomon experience a moving moment of near-contact just before the Frenchman rides out of Travnik for the last time. Solomon generously assists Daville with money because he wants to convey his own experience to the departing Frenchman so that he can be understood, because this would “make everything we have to bear more tolerable.”

But the very desire that filled him so intensely all of a sudden, to convey and impart something more, some important and sweeping truth about his own life and situation and the indignities which the Travnik Atiases had had to endure all these years, prevented him from finding the right manner and the words needed to express, briefly and adequately, what now choked him and started the blood pounding in his ears. And so he began to stammer out, not the things he was so full of and which he longed to express—how they struggled and managed to preserve an invisible strength and dignity—but only the disjointed phrases that came to his tongue.

The narrator explains in detail what Solomon would have said to Daville “had he known how, had he been a man used to speaking his thoughts,” instead of one who, “even in his crib [had not been allowed] to cry out loud, let alone speak freely and clearly during his lifetime.”

In other words, the novel begins and ends with a rift between Daville and the people of Travnik–the first an intentional shunning, the last a pitifully unsuccessful effort to communicate.

Solomon is not the only one who yearns to be heard. Daville, too, seeks

something that neither life nor books could give: a compassionate fellow spirit who would be willing to listen and would have an endless capacity for understanding, to whom he might talk openly and receive lucid and honest answers to all questions. In this dialogue he might then, as in a mirror, see himself for the first time as he really was and learn the true value of his work and determine, without ambiguity, his own position in the world.

The narrator is interested in why almost all of the bilateral conversations are unsatisfactory. For instance, when the wives of the Austrian and French consuls meet,

their talk was bound to falter. When two people converse, one word usually sparks another and together they light a flame, but here the words missed one another and went off in different directions.

Or a married European couple who wash up in Travnik:

But what they needed most urgently, it seemed, was to talk and quarrel, for they neither listened to nor cared to understand each other.

Or a group of ne’er-do-well Travnik Moslems:

they hummed or talked in undertones, with sluggish tongues, disconnectedly, without particular reference to one another’s words. … They looked at one another with unseeing eyes, they listened without hearing …

Or the two European consuls:

A conversation with the Colonel was, in fact, an exchange of data—which were invariably accurate, interesting, and copious, on any and all subjects—but hardly an exchange of thoughts and impressions. Everything about these talks was impersonal, dispassionate, and general. Having said all he wanted to, the Colonel would leave with his rich and precious bag of facts, as fresh, neat, cool, and upright as he had come, and Daville would be left just as lonely as he had been before, his craving for a good talk unappeased. A discussion with the Colonel left nothing for the senses or the soul; one could not even recall the timbre of his voice. His conversation gave the partner no clue to his inner personality, and invited no confidence from the latter.

In chapter 12, soon before the embarrassing sexual encounter between Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife (chapter 14), we are introduced to the four doctors of Travnik: one each from the French consulate, the Austrian consulate, the Franciscan monastery, and the Jewish community. The occasion for introducing them is a tragedy that strikes the most morally appealing character in the novel, Mme Daville (who is the opposite of her Austrian counterpart).

Each doctor has a different relationship with his patients and with the other physicians. Each holds a different theory of human health and fate. The best relationship forms between the Franciscan and the Jew, who “had been inseparable friends and confidants” for 20 years. “The Travnik bazaar had long become used to seeing Mordo and Fra Luka huddling and whispering together, or browsing through herbs and medicines.”

The doctor in the Austrian consulate, Cologna, seems initially as inscrutable as the silent Jewish healer, but for the opposite reason: “he talked too much and constantly modified what he said.” However, in chapter 15 (symmetrical with 13), Desfosses initiates an interview with Cologna in which the latter suddenly becomes both eloquent and sincere in describing himself as a man caught between cultures. At the end of his speech,

The doctor dropped his arms with an air of utter hopelessness, of anger almost. There was no vestige left of that queer, elusive “Illyrian doctor” Desfosses had known. Here stood a man who thought his own thoughts and expressed them forcefully. Desfosses burned with the desire to hear and learn more; he had quite forgotten his own feeling of superiority of a little while before and the house he was in and the business on which he had come.

This is one of the fleeting moments of connection that are distributed on the network of misunderstandings that structure the novel.

Many characters–and sometimes the narrator–employ the categories of Europe and the Orient, or East and West, or Europe and the Levant. Such distinctions are problematic in general. To be more specific, some Bosnians have accused Andric of anti-Moslem prejudice in novels like Bosnian Chronicle.

I cannot judge his whole oeuvre and I could easily have missed bias in this novel, but I read it in a different way. I think the East/West distinction is an error on the part of the characters and works as a red herring for the reader. Human faults and frailties are evenly distributed across the communities of the novel. Their common problem is a failure to connect, and such categories as East and West contribute to that that failure. To be sure, the Ottoman government is tyrannical, but the problem is tyranny, not the Turks as a people. (And some of the Ottoman officials are much more appealing than some of the Christians.)

Apparently, the 1961 Nobel committee considered E.M. Forster along with Andric (and others). The comparison seems fitting, since Forster’s catchphrase, “Only connect,” could also be the motto of Bosnian Chronicle. But I think that gaol is much harder in Andric’s world than in Forster’s.

*His name should be spelled with a diacritical mark under the “c,” but for reasons that I can diagnose but not fix, my website won’t display diacriticals.