Category Archives: Book Talks

Some books I read provoke hmms of wonder, some provoke yawns of lassitude, and some provoke nothing but provocation. A few provoke commentary, and when they do, I will commentarize about them.

War and War and Then Some Peace

man with head in a vice reading

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I’m sure you’ve heard of the book War and Peace, by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and maybe you’ve read it, though if you’re a normal person, reading it probably never even occurred to you. People say the book is a great novel. I’ve just finished reading it this week, and I don’t agree. I do not think War and Peace is a great novel.

To be fair—as fair as I plan to be, anyway—I didn’t read the book at one go. My version is 1,200 pages, so I read 100 or 200 pages at a time, with other books in between, and I spent about a year on it. That long process may have affected my perception of the book, such as my belief that it’s far, far too long, no matter what else you say about it.

The story is a great, vast epic over twenty years, with some of the Napoleonic wars, including the invasion of Russia and occupation of Moscow by the French. There are plenty of detailed battle scenes, of course, and many of the soldiers going into battle seem exhilarated and happy. Back when I thought I might drafted and sent to Vietnam, I used to think that if someone were firing bullets at me, I’d be lying terrified on the ground. Leo Tolstoy, by contrast, did go into battles in the Caucasus region, so I guess he knew better than me. But exhilarated and happy? Did they really run forward thrilled to be there until their brains were blown out?

In general the style of writing is strong, at times simply brilliant, but the story has little focus much of the time, moving from person to person, including entire chapters from the point of view of characters who are ultimately fairly minor. In the end, several characters are followed all the way to the conclusion, so they seem like major characters by exhaustive virtue of having survived the full 1,200 pages.

I have to admit that I didn’t really like most of the characters very much, except perhaps Sonya, who is completely downtrodden and mistreated, and sometimes Pierre was OK. Many of the characters, however, seemed so negative in their portrayals, such as Nicolai at the end turning into a sullen, reactionary country landowner, that I began to wonder whether Tolstoy himself actually liked any of these people.

There were also times when it seemed to me that the author was either bored or lazy, particularly in describing female characters. One woman had “shining eyes” (лучистые глаза) so often that I thought “Leo, did you not notice you were doing this?” I also found his treatment of the female characters to be cliched and sometimes offensive. I know he lived in a very different time from us, I understand that, but Tolstoy is also famous for his ability to realistically portray his characters. With the women, I felt he was often working with stereotyped images that he carried in his head, rather than describing real women.

The most dramatic example of his condescension for me was a description of Natasha at the end of the book, now married and a mother, as being quintessentially a плодовитая самка (“prolific female” or “fertile female [animal]”). Tolstoy literally says at that point in the book that Natasha’s former sparkling personality is gone, but she is a good breeder. You can translate that how you like. A quick Google search showed me that I was not alone in stopping, astonished, when I read that phrase.

As a work of literature, War and Peace can be discussed and criticized, or praised, on many points, but I think as a work of fiction its greatest fault is that Tolstoy was exceedingly self indulgent, deciding that any damn thing that came into his head belonged in his book. OK, it was the nineteenth century, and they did that then. So did Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. But War and Peace has long—long—stretches where the story stops altogether and the author goes into philosophical discussions of history, including various theories as to how history can be written. I’m not kidding.

This flaw particularly mars the end, where it appears the author completely loses interest in his characters. The last thirty pages of the book are a very dense historical discussion that turns into philosophizing about free will. Of course when you read the book for the first time (this was my second time, so I knew what to expect) you keep thinking the discussion will stop and you’ll get back to the characters and the story. Surprise.

I do have admiration for this book, and there were times when I got a great deal of pleasure while reading it, but for me it has too many flaws, some of them too egregious, to regard it as a great novel. But then, what is a great novel anyway?

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Darkness Wrapped in Sugar

Cork, Ireland

Cork, Ireland

“I’m not into any of it. I’m just pulling you up on assuming your right to religion if you’re going to deny it to whores.”

Let’s pause in the exciting rollercoaster of this blog to quietly read a book. I recommend a novel called The Glorious Heresies, by a contemporary Irish writer named Lisa McInerney. As far as I can tell, this is McInerney’s first novel, a book that has won literary prizes.

I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t we hate someone who writes one book and wins prizes for it? It’s a valid question, but I have to say that this is a very good book. The novel is set almost entirely in Cork, Ireland, what they sometimes call Cork City as distinguished from the surrounding County Cork. Nearly every character in the book lives in a state of highly developed dysfunction, and they are using whatever fate gives them to make sure it stays it that way.

If any one character could be considered the main focus of the book, it is Ryan Cusack, who goes from 15 to around 20 years old in the book, though in terms of what he experiences of life, Ryan might be said to go from 15 to 45 in those five years. The author, McInerney, allows us to see that Ryan has a softness and empathy for other people, but he has certainly chosen the wrong life to use those personality traits.

Other characters include Ryan’s father, who seems fated to criminal ineptitude, Jimmy Phelan, a vicious gangster burdened by looking after his difficult mother, Georgie, a prostitute who tries for a while to find religion, and Maureen, Jimmy’s mother, who initiates much of the plot by accidentally killing an intruder who shouldn’t have been there anyway.

Ironically, Maureen is also the conscience of the book, the only person who seems to be honestly trying to steer the other characters in the right direction. Maureen is also in some ways the conscience of the book for Ireland itself. In amongst the gangster goings-on, Maureen recalls a part of Irish history when the Catholic church ran slave labor camps for girls and young women. Technically, the slave camps were called Magdalen “laundries” (the last one closed, amazingly, as late as 1996). Maureen expresses a justified anger at a church that behaves worse than gangsters, and she even tries to take an ineffectual revenge.

In style, McInerney reminds me of other Irish writers who show such a great facility with language. The tone of the book is necessarily harsh, given the subject matter, yet that darkness is often alleviated by a smart, snarky voice, with a very imaginative use of language, as we see in the following examples:

  • An effervescent liar from the phone company had sold Tony a broadband subscription, which had had the effect of lobotomising his three teenagers and giving him the cold comfort of meditative silence.
  • Jesus, he thought. I’m like those gobshites who clap when the plane lands.
  • That he was driven to drink by a taciturn child was as good a reason as being defective in spirit and in genetics…

McInerney also uses Irish slang throughout the story (craic, fecker, bollocks, slash, to cite a few), but in addition to sprinkling the text with particular local words, she has an ear for the sound of Irish speech. This book is a river of rich dialogue, and streams of Irish phrases and syntax flow into that river, currents that grow heavier or lighter depending on the situation (“Era go on outta that,” or “Ah for feck’s sake altogether.”)

In one way, this book reminds me of novels by the British writer Kate Atkinson. When I finish a book by Atkinson, I often think “What a grim, dark story” and yet while I’m reading it, the the pleasure is so great that I don’t notice.

The pleasure of art can sometimes overcome the darkness of the subject, which is what McInerney has accomplished in The Glorious Heresies, wrapping her hollow-eyed leery Corkonians in a rich linguistic tapestry.


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Writing That Flows

Chattahoochee River

Chattahoochee River

Have you read literary magazines? Have you even sent a story, a poem, or an essay to a literary magazine? There are many of them around the country and the world, and they come and go. Some are more than 100 years old, while others spring up with high hopes to print, flash before the world, and die.

The oldest literary magazine here in Atlanta is the Chattahoochee Review, started in 1981 by Lamar York, now retired. After decades as editor, and speaking of how he felt toward the publication, he said, “I had never done anything that gave me the satisfaction that the magazine did.”

Last weekend, I went to North Carolina to spend the weekend with Lamar, who I got to know when I taught at Dekalb College and worked on the Chattahoochee Review. While at Lamar’s remarkable hobbit house, surrounded by a wonderful garden and looking out on the mountains of western North Carolina, I interviewed him about the founding of the magazine for this blog.

The Chattahoochee Review began at what was then called Dekalb College, the only college in Georgia operated by a single county. Since that time, the school has been absorbed by the state system, changed its name to Georgia Perimeter College, and joined Georgia State University.

Had Lamar ever worked on a literary magazine before starting the CR? “No,” he said, “I don’t really know where that came from. I’ve always been fascinated by the essay. I think it was that as much as anything.” Lamar was a serious reader, however, both generally, and of other literary magazines, and he saw them as models for what he wanted to do. In particular, he wanted to have a magazine of essays, reviews, and poetry.

When he began working at Dekalb College, the school had another magazine called the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. After that editor left, Lamar applied for the position as editor—and did not get it, but the idea of editing a literary magazine had been born.

His opportunity came when the college opened a campus to the north of the city. The head of the new Humanities Department, Carl Griffin, asked Lamar to transfer to the north campus, which Lamar had no interest in. Griffin suggested, however, that on the north campus Lamar could start a new magazine, a motivating enticement. Thus the idea for the Chattahoochee Review originated with Carl Griffin, and Lamar went to the new campus.

Whence the name for the magazine? “I was very conscious of the geographical names,” Lamar said. “Like the Georgia Review or Sewanee Review. I wanted a name like that.” Nevertheless, he started a contest for submissions to name the magazine, with a committee of students and faculty to judge the entries.

As it happened, in spite of the committee, Lamar was still thinking about the name, considering such possibilities as Atlanta Review or Stone Mountain Review, names derieved from the city where the magazine would be located or from the enormous strange boulder to the east of the city. Then one day while driving to Selma, Alabama, to visit his brother, he saw the Chattahoochee River and “Ah!” there it was.

Naturally a project like starting a new magazine, by a person with no experience, would take some curve and learning. Lamar said he had had no idea how to go about running the magazine, including something as basic as how to get manuscripts. In the early days, he said, the magazine “was a pale imitation of the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal”, the other magazine from the college.

As for the money to run the magazine, the Dean suggested at the time that Lamar ask the student government for money, and for five years they gave around $1,000 a year to fund the magazine, until the college took over direct funding. The small-budget magazine was also a work of love for Lamar, because as the editor, he had neither release time from teaching to run the magazine nor a magazine office.

Several years into the project, the college administration decided to close one of the two magazines at the school, the Chattahoochee Review or the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. At the time, Lamar talked with the other editor, and they decided that they would merge the two magazines together, to be renamed as The Stone Mountain Review. In the end, however, no one ever told Lamar to stop publishing, and the CR continued to live.

I asked Lamar what the reception had been for the magazine, now so well respected. One of the things he really remembered is that he had been astonished by the number of submissions. “I was absolutely swept away by the number of people who wanted to be published,” he said. In later years he would occasionally talk with editors of other magazines who complained about the large number of submissions, but Lamar was always glad that people who could write wanted to be in the magazine. Summarizing his feelings about writers asking to be included, he said, “I loved getting the Chattahoochee’s mail.”

Lamar York has moved on to a house on a ridge looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains, but the The Chattahoochee Review continues to support contemporary literature and accept submissions.

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The Girls Are Standing

Irish girls“On Good Friday the shops were closed and every place was sad. Purple-sad. Death-sad.”
Description of Dublin, The Country Girls

In 1960 Caithleen Brady and Baba Brennan stepped onto the pages of Irish literature in The Country Girls, and in this short novel, the two girls helped set off a firestorm against the book and the author, Edna O’Brien. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that this book was banned by the Irish censorship board (in a time when they still had such a thing), and the book was burned in O’Brien’s home town by a priest.

Regarding the controversy caused by this book, O’Brien said much later that it was caused in part because “there had not been a tradition of women writers” and also because at the time she wrote, Ireland had a “narrow, claustrophobic, judgemental religion”. Nevertheless, the book inspired other Irish writers, and nearly a quarter of a century later, it was made into a movie in 1984.

The story is told in first person, so every word in the book is Caithleen’s voice, every thought is her thought. She is a somewhat naive girl, and the author shows Caithleen feeling insecure, not knowing things, and discovering new aspects of life. Throughout the novel, Caithleen is accompanied by her friend Baba, as they go together to a convent school and then room together in Dublin. Baba comes across as more sophisticated, more daring, and occasionally harsh toward Caithleen, so that their friendship can be baffling to understand sometimes.

Although The Country Girls is a fairly short book, written in just three weeks, it leads the reader through a great transition in the life of Caithleen. When we come into her story, she is a young girl living with her mother and father in a country house outside a small town. The novel then has her leave home to go to the convent high school, and by the end Caithleen is a young, but independent, woman living in Dublin.

O’Brien wrote this book in what is usually considered a realistic style, using a straightforward narrative to move the story forward. As an aspect of that style, there is a great attention to the details of each scene, as if it were the author’s purpose to meticulously record the settings and incidents she was describing. When the girls first arrive in Dublin, for instance, the man they rent from is described sitting in a dining room:

“There was a piano in one corner, and next to it was a sideboard that had framed photographs on top of it, and opposite that was a china cabinet. It was stuffed with glasses, cups, mugs, and all sorts of souvenirs. Sitting at the table was a bald, middle-aged man eating a boiled egg.”

An aspect of the novel that must have caused some heartburn is a strongly irreverent attitude toward religion, seen in the attitudes of several characters, or in the way Baba speaks (once when Caithleen doesn’t want to go somewhere, Baba says, “In Christ’s name, why not?”). In addition, there are scenes in the convent school that make the nuns look foolish, at best, such as a nun who reads an obscene note, has a mental breakdown, and has to be taken away.

What surely set the Guardians of Morality to goose-stepping when this book was first published was the sexual element. Though those references are mild by modern standards, the mere presence of sexual implications was pushing against the barbed wire of social rules in 1960. Furthermore, the novel was written by a woman about young women on their own. Not only did the Catholic Church want to control sexuality, but in particular, they wanted ironfist control over women’s sexuality, like nearly every religion and culture on the planet earth. Some things don’t change.

This book, at its heart, is about two village girls yearning to experience life, to eat some of the sweet fruit that all people reach for. Caithleen is also aching for romance, and over the course of the book, we see her pursuing a possibility that may strike most readers as not a very good idea.

In an interview a few years ago about this book, Edna O’Brien said that “a lot of literature and the literature that I admire is about longing”, and this novel very much embodies basic human longing. Desire for something more, something better, runs through the book for practically every character. In the same interview, O’Brien also said that “writing is from the unconscious”, and in The Country Girls she has reached into her own unconscious to pull out Caithleen and Baba as representations not only of Irish girls in their time, but of what it is like to be human at any time.

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Giving Books to the World

piles of books

They all go.

I was thinking this week about a book I remember owning, an art book I bought in 1981 in Leningrad (a city that has since gone back to its real name, St. Petersburg). I was in Leningrad that year at Christmas, and the group of students I was part of had a dinner with extremely schmaltzy entertainment, the sort of thing tourists might like, but I didn’t like it. The event was no doubt to distract us from the fact that on Christmas Day we were foolishly stuck in the Soviet Union (also now gone back to its real name, Russia).

In the afternoon before the dinner, I bought a large folio book with pictures from a contemporary artist who had struck my fancy. That evening at the dinner, along with bad entertainment, we had jolly great quantities of wine (and probably vodka), and when the meal ended, there were open wine bottles on the table, still full. I was myself jolly great full of wine, so I decided I’d just take a bottle, which I stuck in the plastic bag I was carrying, along with the new book. Then I laid the bag on its side for just a moment.

I know I had that wine-stained book for years, but it seems to be gone, which doesn’t surprise me. I’m not sure how often I’ve moved in my life, but a couple of years ago I calculated it to be around thirty times, and I’ve discarded a lot of belongings in that time. I can tell you from experience, the more times you pick stuff up, the less you love it. I’m now thinking, as much as I like my current apartment, that I want to move closer to work, cut down on my commute, and have more time in the week.

Over the decades, I’ve collected a wonderful lot of coffee table books, the sort that are large and colorful and beautifully printed. I’ve moved these tons of books over and over, most recently from here to New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Maryland, and back to here. I think it’s time to give them away before I move again.

Many of these books are about Russia, which has been such an enormous interest for me for so long. I have books on history and art, books on palaces, and book with historical photos and particular kinds of art. I’ve been through every one of those books, and when I look at one with photographs of palaces in St. Petersburg, I go back to so many memories, strolling beside canals, sitting in cafes eating pastry, walking lost down unknown streets in late-day sunlight, standing in snow at a train station, possibly after a few sips of vodka, playing a rendition of Tchaikovsky on my comb while other students danced like swans (although that was in Moscow).

I also have a number of fine books on ancient Egyptian art, another area that has been a very strong interest for years (I even published an academic article once on ancient Egyptian rhetoric). I’ve never been to Egypt, however, going there only through books and museums. For years I taught classes that included Egyptian culture and history, in part because I just wanted to. You may not realize that we have literature from ancient Egypt. We don’t have much, but we do have some, and I used to teach it.

Part of my interest in Egypt was linguistic (of course it would be), so that I spent some time trying to learn to read hieroglyphics. Those books I’m keeping, because I still can’t part with language books. And anyway, I might want to learn more about reading hieroglyphics. Just thinking about it as I write this makes me want to get up and go look at them.

Among the books I’m discarding, I also find a couple of things from the history of Christianity. One of those books came from my father, who collected books like the floors of forests collect leaves in autumn. I could take a hundred books out of his house and you’d never even notice. From who-knows-where I also acquired a book on St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai, and I still consider that place one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, even if I only encountered it on paper.

I’m not concerned about a lack of books. Just last Saturday when I came home from a Passover Seder at a friend’s house, I was carrying three fat novels by an Italian writer. There will always be books in my house, even in this digital age, and even as I give them away.

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You Are Forbidden From Reading This

burning booksLast week I was reading the magazine Publisher’s Weekly, which had an interview with the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, and in the discussion, the article mentioned her first novel, The Country Girls (actually confused in the article with a later memoire called The Country Girl, without the plural). The novel was published in 1960, and at that time, the Irish censorship board banned the book. To make it all so much more fun, the local priest in O’Brien’s parish burned copies of her book.

While I still sat holding Publisher’s Weekly in my hand, I thought I’m absolutely going to read that book. Any book people insist you cannot read is a book you should read, especially if the insistence comes from the grim gray monolith of the Catholic Church. Since I try to only buy my books from bookstores, rather than from Amazon (even though I probably pay more), I asked Tale Tales, a small independent store, to order the book for me. The clerk could not find the book still in print, so she ordered me a used copy from Great Britain.

I left the bookstore thinking about the enormous efforts people have exerted to control what other people read. The purpose of censorship is to try to control what people think, as the books are simply a conveyance of ideas. The ultimate power over other human beings is to control the very ideas moving through their minds, and from that point of view, every book represents a dangerous, uncontrolled freedom. For dictators, the world would be so much better with no books.

Western printing was invented around 1450, and the first Catholic list of prohibited books was in 1559. As with Edna O’Brien’s novel, books have been burned (most famously for us, perhaps, by the Nazis in the 1930s), and in some centuries it was not enough to burn the books, but the authors were burned as well. The Catholic Church was so adamant about mind control that a number of people who translated the Bible into local languages, such as English, were savagely burned at the stake.

Speaking of brutal savages, the Soviet Union—let us pause to thank God it fell apart—exercised one of the most rigid regimes of censorship the world has known. The Soviets controlled the content of every book, every magazine and newspaper, every radio and TV program, every movie, and with the invention of photocopiers, they controlled what could be copied. In one famous example, after the arrest of a political figure, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia mailed everyone who had bought the encyclopedia a page to be glued over the article about the arrested man.

Here in our own enlightened 21st century, within the last few weeks, another dictatorship (OK, China, now I’m talking about you) actually kidnapped booksellers in Hong Kong and dragged them off to China proper. Technically, booksellers in Hong Kong have different laws and can sell what they want. But when you don’t have any real laws in your own country, what do you care about technicalities? The purpose of censorship and mind control is to stop all ideas that people with power don’t like, and the authoritarians of China are becoming increasingly determined to control their people.

Preventing outside ideas from coming in has called on ingenuity from people who want to exercise censorship. In the 1600s it meant searching for books hidden in carts full of straw. In the 20th century it meant figuring out how to jam radio signals. Now, as China shows us, it means blocking specific sites on the internet. The cold brutality of censorship is ingenious, and the government of China has legions of programmers working to stop the Chinese people from reading true information.

From the point of view of mind control, whether it is in the service of Popes or Joseph Stalin or modern China, the censors are right. Every book could cause someone to think. Every website could carry uncontrolled ideas. They are dangerous. The invention of printing, for example, eventually led to the propagation of ideas from the Protestant Reformation, leading ultimately to the spread of democracy. Who could have expected that from the invention of movable type?

So we’ve invented the internet, and what will it lead to? While we’re waiting to find out, I’m going to get a copy of The Country Girls and read it, and as I read, I’ll think about that vile Irish priest who burned the book and tried to stop me, and I’ll say, “Here it is, motherfucker. You lose.”

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The Giant Has Not Yet Stood

Egyptian money“Your father—what’s his profession, Taha?”

Five years ago this month, protestors in Egypt took to the streets against the dictator Mubarak. As the largest Arabic country, with a population over 82,000,000, the potential of the country continues to be thwarted by vicious, incompetent governments, such as the current one. In literature, however, modern Egypt has produced writers who have achieved international recognition. Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Last fall, by serendipity at the Decatur Book Festival, I discovered another Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, and his novel The Yacoubian Building.

As I’ve learned after reading the book, this novel has been widely read throughout Egypt and other Arabic countries, as well as made into both a movie and a TV program in Egypt. During the Arab spring protests against Mubarak, some people even credited this book with helping to bring people out to protest.

So The Yacoubian Building has had a huge impact. What is it like as a book? The English language version (translated by Humphrey Davies, published by Harper Perennial) is a short book, just under 250 pages, but it feels a bit like a grand epic (OK, a compressed grand epic). This is clearly an ambitious book, such that the title, with its reference to a single building, is almost ironic. The novel is actually about Egypt.

The book takes place at the beginning of this century, much of the action occurring in the Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo. The author, Al Aswany, working from this focus, has followed a remarkable diversity of characters, so that the end result is a condensed portrait of modern Egyptian life in the capital city.

The novel has been controversial in Egypt for several reasons. Perhaps most provocatively, it vividly portrays corruption by the highest leaders in the country (including one who is named only as the Big Man), as well as open vote rigging of a crooked election. A political fixer comments on what he does by saying, “People are naive when they get the idea that we fix elections. Nothing of the kind. It just comes down to the fact that we’ve studied the Egyptian people well. Our Lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority…”

Socially, the book also provoked people by the fact that one of the protagonists, Hatim, is gay, and his life, including his sexual life, is shown in some detail. He is described after spending time with his lover (an uneducated country man who also has a wife and child): “They’d finished the morning love session and Hatim got out of bed, naked, and took a dreamy, dancing step on the tips of his toes, his face full of contentment and animation…”

For an Egyptian reader, this may be a valuable book because it shows political corruption and challenges the rigid social boxes that people are expected to live in. For a foreign reader, however, those aspects of the book might be interesting, but what also recommends the novel is that it lets us feel we’ve had a serious look at the country, that we have some sense of the place.

Among the many lives that come through the narrative, we see Taha, a young man who has studied hard hoping to get into the police, in spite of social prejudice that stands in the way of someone from his social class. Over the course of the book, we see him come under the influence of extremely religious Islamists, who are so angry at what is happening in their country that they are willing to destroy the current status quo. After what we have read up to that point, it is easy to understand how they could feel that way.

The very best novels, whatever their locale or story, comment on humanity beyond the setting of the book. The Yacoubian Building reaches for this level of literature, showing human passion—ambition, lust, religion, revenge, anger, greed—while bringing the reader into the story in such a way that we can often feel what the characters feel. In this small epic, we watch a young woman tolerate the sexual advances of her boss, watch the police viciously torture prisoners, and watch a religious woman wish her husband the chance to become a martyr during a terrorist act.

In the book we can also see reflections of ourselves, vulnerable anxious human beings, such as the rich old man who has been robbed by a woman he brought home for sex, sitting “almost naked on the edge of the couch that shortly before had been a cradle of love. At that moment, in his underwear and with his frail body and empty, collapsed mouth (he had removed his false teeth so as to be able to kiss the Beloved), he looked very much like some wretched comic actor…”

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