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Advance Praise for Holocaust Memories: An Anthology of Holocaust Memoirs, Novels and Films

 

 

This book fills a present and mounting need for all readers interested in the Holocaust, including scholars and teachers.  With the literature about that unprecedented crime becoming steadily more extensive, Claudia Moscovici’s work offers a valuable and well-written guide to key works on various aspects of the Holocaust or on its entire history.

Guy Stern, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Wayne State University Director, International Institute of the Righteous Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Center, Farmington Hills, MI

Holocaust Memories is a morally urgent book, an encyclopedia of mourning, remembrance, and compassion, an invitation and a behest to keep memory alive and to resist unwaveringly any form of authoritarian temptation. It is particularly recommended to high school and college students, but also to a general audience. I learned a lot from it and I am convinced that many others will share my superlative endorsement.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Professor of Politics, University of Maryland (College Park), author of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

A well written series  of book reviews that can be used as a solid tool for those who  want to study the Holocaust.

Radu Ioanid, Author of The Holocaust in Romania and The Ransom of the Jews

 

Intended for a wide public and a new generation of readers, this bold and ambitious book forms an overview of the Holocaust from a myriad of sources – historical, philosophical, or literary works and films. More than sixty lucid and concise essays (usually two or three pages long) introduce various circumstances of human cruelty in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Soviet Russia, but also in Cambodia and Rwanda. These focused readings comprise an invaluable source-book for anyone seeking to understand the horrors of totalitarian regimes, constantly reminding us that moral courage must prevail over politics.

Edward K. Kaplan, Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, Brandeis University, author a two-volume biography of  Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

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Filed under contemporary fiction

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: What is the banality of Evil?

Adolf Eichmann during trial, Wikipedia Commons

Adolf Eichmann during trial, Wikipedia Commons

Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: What is the banality of Evil?

 By Claudia Moscovici

 The wonderful new movie, Hannah Arendt (2012), directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa, shows that Arendt’s series of articles on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, covered by The New Yorker in 1961 and subsequently published under the title of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Books, New York, 1963), was a double-edged sword in her career.  On the one hand, it gave Arendt a broader mainstream visibility, in part because of the international controversy it generated. On the other hand, this very controversy cost her several valuable friendships and even jeopardized her reputation in the academia. The controversy hinges upon the manner in which Arendt describes the nature of evil that characterizes the worst genocide in human history: the Holocaust.

Her explanation, captured by the phrase “the banality of evil,” posits that evil deeds are, for the most part, not perpetrated by monsters or sadists. Most often, they are perpetrated by seemingly ordinary people like Adolf Eichmann, who value conformity and narrow self-interest over the welfare of others. The concept of the banality of evil seems intuitive enough. Nontheless, it generated a huge controversy, primarily because critics interpreted it as exonerating Adolf Eichmann and indicting the victims of the Holocaust: particularly the Jewish leaders who were compelled by the Nazis to organize the Jewish people for mass deportations and eventual extermination.

Was Arendt putting the criminals and the victims in the same boat? Or, even worse, does her notion of the banality of evil end up blaming the victims? I don’t think so. In what follows, I’d like to explain why by outlining Arendt’s two explanations of the banality of evil: the first one being people who naturally lack empathy and conscience in any circumstances (like Eichmann) and who thrive in totalitarian regimes; the second understood as evil actions (or callous indifference) that even people who do have a conscience are capable of under extreme circumstances.

1.     Adolf Eichmann and the banality of psychopathy

Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nazi regime and one of the key figures in the Holocaust. With initiative and enthusiasm, he organized the mass deportations of the Jews first to ghettos and then to extermination camps throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Once Germany lost the war, he fled to Argentina. Years later, he was captured by the Mossad and extradited to Israel. In a public trial, he was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was found guilty and executed by hanging.

In her accounts of the trial, Arendt is struck by the contrast between Eichmann’s monstrous deeds and his average appearance and banal, technocratic language. Unlike other Nazi leaders notorious for crimes against humanity, such as Amon Goeth or Josef Mengele, Eichmann didn’t seem to be a disordered sadist. More remarkably given his actions against the Jewish people, unlike Hitler, Eichmann wasn’t even particularly anti-Semitic.

Although six psychiatrists testified during the trial to Eichmann’s apparent “normality,” in her articles Arendt emphasizes the fact that his normalcy is only a mask. In fact, she highlights the aspects of his behavior under questioning that were anything but normal: his self-contradictions, lies, evasiveness, denial of blame about the crimes he did commit and inappropriate boasting about his power and role in the Holocaust for crimes there’s no evidence he committed. Arendt is particularly struck by this man’s absolute lack of empathy and remorse for having sent hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths. To each count he was charged with, Eichmann pleaded “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” (p. 21) This leads Arendt to ask: “In what sense then did he think he was guilty?” (p. 21) His defense attorney claimed that “Eichmann feels guilty before God, not before the law,” but Arendt points out that Eichmann himself never acknowledges any such moral culpability.

If he denies any moral responsibility it’s because, as Arendt is astonished to observe, he doesn’t feel any. Although, surprisingly enough, none of the forensic psychologists see Eichmann as a psychopath, Arendt describes Eichmann in similar terms Hervey Cleckley uses to describe psychopathic behavior in his 1941 groundbreaking book, The Mask of Sanity. First and foremost, Eichmann is a man with abnormally shallow emotions. Because of this, he also lacks a conscience. Even though he understands the concept of law, he has no visceral sense of right and wrong and can’t identify with the pain of others. His extraordinary emotional shallowness impoverishes not only his sense of ethics, but also his vocabulary. Arendt gives as one of many examples Eichmann’s desire to “find peace with his former enemies” (p. 53). Arendt states that “Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences” (p.53). These stock phrases are a manifestation of Eichmann’s empty emotional landscape; his behavior towards the Jews even more so.

It is surprising to me that in a review of Hannah Arendt the movie that also focuses on Eichmann in Jerusalem, Mark Lilla believes that Hannah Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s mask of sanity. He argues that Arendt’s search for a more general explanation of evil blinded her to Eichmann’s particular disorder: “But the other impulse, to find a schema that would render the horror comprehensible and make judgment possible, in the end led her astray. Arendt was not alone in being taken in by Eichmann and his many masks, but she was taken in.” (Mark Lilla, “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth,” The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013). In her description of Adolf Eichmann as a man without conscience and empathy, I didn’t see any evidence that she was duped by him in the same way the psychiatrists testifying at his trial obviously were.

Yet, Arendt emphasizes, even ordinary people capable of empathy and remorse can still cause extraordinary harm in unusual circumstances.  This constitutes the second understanding of the banality of evil she develops: namely, the banality of conformity, which is what I’ll cover next week.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

A room of onee's own

Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

Claudia Moscovici

In 1929 Virginia Woolf published a series of lectures that she delivered in 1928 at Newnham and Girton colleges (the women’s colleges at Cambridge University), which we  know under the title “A Room of One’s Own”. She argued that women don’t have their own creative space, both figuratively, in the male-dominated tradition of male writing, and literally, meaning the time and space to write. I think that nowadays few writers, both male and female, have a room of one’s own. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing is a passion, a talent, even an identity, but it is no longer a profession. To put it bluntly, most writers can’t earn a consistent living from it. Even journalism is barely hanging on, as the major newspapers in the U.S. are bought at low prices and blogging has taken over what used to be professional journalism. Ever since I was in college, at Princeton University, I’ve dreamt of being a fiction writer. Knowing, however, that writing isn’t a full-fledged profession, I didn’t take the plunge until my family and I achieved some level of financial stability. I studied and got a doctorate in Comparative Literature at Brown University and became a literary critic and professor for nearly 15 years. Although I had some financial stability at that point, I wouldn’t say that I had a room of my own, either literally or figuratively. I was busy raising a young family, my lovely kids Sophie and Alex, so I didn’t have much time to write fiction.bookbloginterview3

Professionally, for many years I wrote scholarly essays and books. To give voice to my creative side, in  2002 I founded an art movement called postromanticism (http://postromanticism.com), devoted to some of the aesthetic values that I thought were being neglected in contemporary art: verisimilitude, passion, sensuality and beauty.Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

The internet became, to some extent, a room of my own: a space where I could discover and interact with artists from all over the world (France, the U.S., Switzerland, Taiwan, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) who shared my aesthetic vision. But I still didn’t have the time and space to fully express my own creativity as a writer until I became a full-time writer in 2008 and subsequently published my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, in 2009 (translated as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) and my second novel, The Seducer (2011). At that point in my life, my children were old enough that they no longer needed to be nurtured in the same way, or in the same space with me at all times. My space as a writer changed again and I could finally have the time and place to write.

Bookbloginterview1

I write at my desk on a Mac computer, with my cat Jewel serving as a constant companion (and, I’d say, also muse). As all my Facebook friends know from the cat pictures I post, I’m a big cat lover. This is why I chose a picture of Jewel in my library as one of the photos included for this interview. This picture of my cat perched on my books also shows that even when I write fiction I still follow some of the research habits  that I acquired as a scholar. I research throughly every novel I write. To write Velvet Totalitarianism, for instance, I read dozens of books on communism, the Ceausescu dictatorship, the political history of Romania and the revolution of 1989. To write The Seducer, a novel about psychopathic seduction that follows the structure of my favorite novel, Anna Karenina, I researched psychopathy, narcissism and other personality disorders. The plots of my novels may be fiction, but to write about anything that has a basis in history, psychology or sociology I believe that one has to have some foundation in facts.

Seducer Cover

We are used to thinking of writers as being occupied mostly with writing. I believe this too has become a fiction. If the writer has a family, then a large part of his or her life revolves around that family’s needs. Second, a writer has to wear many hats, so to speak: researcher, writer, and publicity director all in one. As a literary critic, fiction writer and founder of an international art movement, the publicity hat is very large for me. I not only have to publicize my own books, but also the postromantic movement and the art of the dozens of artists I collaborate with (you can see some of my essays about them on my art blog, http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com).bookbloginterview2

This is why for this interview I’ve included a press photo of me during my visit to Romania, taken by Claudiu Ciprian Popa, for the launch of my novel Intre Doua Lumi, in 2011. Book publicity has become almost as important to me as the computer at which I write. And this isn’t just because nowadays publicity has become a necessity: without effective publicity most writers wouldn’t be read. It’s also because I’m trying to find a place in the publishing industry that isn’t that of simply being a writer. I’ve witnessed enormous changes in this industry in the U.S., as most of the small and medium publishing houses have died, or been swallowed by the large publishers. Even the large publishing houses have had to merge to survive. Most authors are left without a publicity budget, which means with less consecration and access to readers and reviewers. The final picture I’m including of this room of my own is a still shot from the movie video book trailer for my novel “Velvet Totalitarianism,” called “Velvet Love,” made by Andy Platon.

bookbloginterview4

This photo indicates the direction I believe the publishing industry will take: namely, producing relatively inexpensive, creative and cutting-edge ways in which individual authors and publishers will publicize books in the future. In the past few years my writing space, or room of my own, has changed yet again, to encompass a network of collaborations among the various arts, including music, film and literature, which I believe will become increasingly important to authors and publishers alike.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under A Room of one's own, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, interview with Bookblog, Intre Doua Lumi Claudia Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Virginia Woolf A room of one's own

Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction

rubato1

Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato: The Coordinates of World-class Romanian Fiction

by Claudia Moscovici

Despite charting very unfamiliar territories in fiction, the writer Razvan Petrescu is quite familiar—and famous—in his native country, Romania. A versatile and award-winning author, Petrescu is an essayist, fiction writer and playwright. Among his numerous literary prizes, he won the award Book of the Year at the National Salon of Books in Cluj; a fiction award for The Farce (Farsa, Editura Unitext, 1994) from the Association of Writers in Bucharest (Asociatia Scriitorilor din Bucuresti); the award UNITER for the best play of the year, Spring at the Buffet (Primavara la buffet, Editura Expansion, 1995), and the Prose Prize given by Radio Romania Cultural. Some of his works have been translated into Hebrew, Spanish and will be soon translated into English as well.

razvan-petrescu-foto-attila-vizauer

Traddutore Traditore

I have to admit, however, that I don’t envy the translators’ job, which I’m sure is very challenging. They say that poetry is the most difficult genre to translate, but in my opinion fiction that is unique in content and employs stylistically many dialects—such as the writing of Ion Luca Caragiale, Romain Gary and Razvan Petrescu–is the most difficult kind of literature to translate. And yet, that is usually also the most noteworthy and ingenious fiction. My main goal in this review is to convey the fact that Razvan Petrescu is a world-class author to an international audience, which may not be familiar with the Romanian language or with Romanian literature. How will I go about doing that? In mathematics or geography, you pinpoint a location, however remote or difficult to find, in terms of known coordinates. There’s no equivalent precise guide in the arts and humanities, however. The best I can do to offer such coordinates is to explain the relatively unfamiliar in terms of the relatively familiar: canonized authors that everyone knows; psychological fiction; universal themes and philosophical currents. The book I’ll be discussing here is Rubato (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), which is a collection of several of Razvan Petrescu’s prize-winning short fiction, published from 1989 to 2003. Rubato is like an album of the author’s best hits, if you will, but it is also far more than that: it’s world-class fiction, comparable, I believe, to the works of legendary writers like Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges.

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Unique, uncategorizable fiction

Most fiction writers can be integrated rather easily into a genre, a movement or a style: be it  realism, fantasy, horror, or magical realism. There are a few writers, however, who are so quirky in style and unique in content that they’re almost impossible to categorize in terms of any neat and familiar literary labels. Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are two of my favorite authors among those. How do you attach a label to Kafka’s psychological realism of the subconscious and dream; to what do you compare Borges’ mathematical paradoxes translated into a puzzling fiction? I think Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato fits into this uncategorizable category of fiction. Which is why I believe that the best way to describe it to those who haven’t read it yet is in terms of equally innovative and quirky authors, such as Kafka and Borges. What Rubato shares with, for instance, Kafka’s The Castle (1926) is a psychological realism that goes far beyond—and beneath—the layers of our conscious reality.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

The psychological realism of the subconscious

If Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or The Trial (1925) feel so real to us it’s not because they are actually realist in either content or style. It’s because these works focus so well on our unconscious fears—of powerlessness and alienation in a modern, bureaucratic society—that they bring them to the surface of our awareness. In reading the works of Kafka, we face our  misgivings and fears, confront them and even laugh at them, since they appear absurd. Yet we no longer minimize them and are unable to shove them back  under the rug, into the unconscious, to dismiss them. That’s why the works of Kafka remain so eerie and unsettling to us. Despite their sense of the absurd and humor, they’re as far removed as possible from superficial farce. The same phenomenon is at work when you read Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato. This slice of life tale depicts a psychiatrist’s “normal” day at work, which is full of abnormalities. 

photo Vadim Stein

photo Vadim Stein

All sorts of patients come in and out of his office, including a security officer/spy, a prostitute suffering from venereal diseases and a woman with psychopathic tendencies, who likes to torture and kill birds. Though they are all quite severely disturbed, the readers can’t help but laugh when reading their plights. The security officer has stinky feet and a very shallow conscience; the prostitute takes her clothes off and asks the psychiatrist to cure her venereal diseases; while the sadistic woman that likes to torture birds is beat at her own game (cruelty), as the psychiatrist admits to being more weird than her (and better at “befriending” and then killing birds as well). The name of the game for each of the characters is a complete detachment from the elements that render us human (empathy, caring, emotion, deep and meaningful connections to others). Despite this serious psychological deficiency, the tone of the narrative is so realistic in its style—the dialect and mannerisms of speech of each character constitute in themselves masterpieces of modern fiction—that the reader too becomes somewhat detached and laughs at them. Yet in laughing at them we also laugh at ourselves. Razvan Petrescu captures the most disturbing elements of the human condition through a series of hallucinatory characters, dialogues and diatribes that simultaneously appear absurd and  implausible yet also seem more real than our daily, conscious reality. How does he do that? Through what may be called “laughter through tears,” that authors like Ion Luca Caragiale, Anton Chekhov and Shalom Aleichem are best known for. 

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Laughter through tears: Neither satire nor irony

The kind of narrative that establishes layers of psychological distance among the narrator, characters and readers in literature is usually described as “satire” or “irony”. But like Anton Chekkov, Ion Luca Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem’s fiction, Rubato provides neither: or rather, it offers much more than that.  Irony and satire are rhetorical stances that assume a position of superiority towards the characters and their actions from the narrator and/or author and readers. Authors that rely heavily on irony often ridicule the characters’ weaknesses and follies. I see no evidence of any narrative sense of superiority or authorial arrogance in Rubato. When we laugh at its characters, we realize we’re also laughing at ourselves. Hence the sense of unease that accompanies Rubato’s keen and pervasive sense of humor, which brings to light our phobias, perverse desires, abnormality and insecurities.

Even more disturbingly, Rubato constantly reminds us of the fragility of human life and of our mortality. Scenes of death and decay pervade Razvan Petrescu’s fiction. No matter how theatrical and comical the depictions of illness and death may be, unlike the scenes we see on the daily news, they still touch and disturb us psychologically. With a sense of indulgence and even love for humanity—and placing himself on the same plane as his characters and readers–the author opens up, like a doctor, the worst of our human qualities and examines them closely, one by one. We greet this complex process with mixed emotions–laughter, horror, revulsion and indulgence–because in these narratives, like in a hallway of mirrors, we see reflections of our inner lives.

photo Herb Ritts

photo Herb Ritts

Love, misogyny and women

In a recent interview with Esquire Magazine (Romania), Razvan Petrescu described himself—tongue-in-cheek, of course–as a “misogynist womanizer.” I’ve never in my life met a misogynist who admits to hating yet needing women. Misogynists tend to hide their contempt for women under the pretext of loving them (a technique common for psychopathic seducers) or of respecting certain women (such as mothers or the “virtuous” few) and hating all the rest. There’s  no trace of such underlying misogyny in any of Petrescu’s works. What we find in Rubato, for instance, is a compelling depiction of fear of the object of desire. This fear is a far cry from Arthur Schopenhauer or Henry de Montherlant’s flagrant and self-righteous misogyny. Many gorgeous, sexy women populate Petrescu’s fiction. Their erotic power is attenuated by humor; their emotional appeal is neutralized by fear.

In the short story The Door (Usa), for instance, a mother and a daughter exchange worried whispers about their husband/father, who is dying on a hospital bed in an adjacent room. The doctor, about to go to a surgery and utterly indifferent to his patient’s plight, attempts to persuade the two women to take the moribund patient back home. There’s nothing he can do for him at the hospital anymore. Rather than worrying about the poor state of health of the patient, the two women debate in hushed voices the cost of transporting the ill man home. The patient overhears the whole conversation through a slightly cracked door. He expires, in a scene as vivid but more concise than Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), knowing that he’s neither appreciated nor loved by his wife and his daughter.  Razvan Petrescu’s fictional world is filled with such uncaring women, indifferent doctors, loveless marriages and spoiled children. They show the following thought experiment in action: When cynicism is pushed as far as it can go, it becomes psychological realism.

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Cynicism versus nihilism

There’s no doubt that Razvan Petrescu’s fiction is pervaded by an underlying sense of cynicism. Not nihilism, but cynicism. Nihilism, or the questioning and negation of human ideals and values, may be great for philosophy—think Nietzsche—but it can be awfully boring and preachy when we encounter it in fiction. Who needs a dissertation on the meaninglessness of life and human values from some uppity character delivering lectures from up high, on a pedestal? Cynicism, on the other hand, tends to be a very welcome perspective in fiction. It avoids both the unforgivable naiveté of idealism and the arrogance of nihilism. Of course, in modern usage, cynicism has little to do with the original Greek Cynics, who believed that the purpose of life was to live a virtuous and modest life, deprived of unnecessary luxuries: in other words, a life in accordance to Nature. Perhaps modern Cynicism uses as its frame of reference only the most comical and extreme of the Cynics—Diogenes of Sinope—who rejected his society, begged to survive, and lived in a stone jar in the marketplace. Either way you look at it, cynicism offers a critical perspective of the human condition and of our societies with enough humor and sense of the absurd that even humanists can take it.  Written in a dramatic, hallucinatory and utterly engaging polyphony of dialects (and characterizations); confronting our deepest fears and flaws with a disarming honesty and contagious cynicism; probing psychologically the limits of our humanity and moral values, Razvan Petrescu’s Rubato is a masterpiece of world (not just Romanian) literature.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under book review of Razvan Petrescu's Rubato, Borges, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing Rubato, Cynicism, Kafka, Razvan Petrescu's Rubato: The Coordinates of World-Class Romanian Fiction, Shalom Aleichem, The Castle, The Trial

The Cube has landed (in bookstores)! Nat Karody’s new science fiction novel

The Cube by Nat Karody

The Cube, a new novel by Nat Karody, has landed (in bookstores)!

 

Were you disappointed by the ending to the series Lost? What follows is a story with as intricate a mythology as Lost’s but with an important difference: in the end it is all explained mechanistically, without resort to mysticism or religion. At the conclusion of the novel, the following summary of the core mystery, taken from the opening chapter, will be perfectly sensible: The Oopsah told a story, a majestic, exalted, beatific story of the coming of the end times and the rise of the Controller.

He learned how the world would end, who would destroy it, and how he, Zranga, could prevent it. He learned that he had been appointed by destiny – by the Controller himself – to carry out this mission. But above all he learned of the existence of a perfect being, the demigod Celeste, trapped beyond time in a cycle of eternal death. Only Zranga could rescue her, and to do this he had to place a giant door on the bottom of the Silent Sea, and kill the Great Man. Read on to found out how far Ivy Morven will go to stop Tobor Zranga from realizing his destiny, and how this alternative universe is bizarrely structured so that the most rational acts are the most extreme.

The Cube is well-written, ingeniously crafted and has great character development. Although clearly a science fiction narrative, The Cube also transcends its genre, to attract a broad audience. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story of a  young couple from adjacent sides of a  cubic planet who meet at an edge and develop a relationship in the midst  of a war that threatens to  destroy the planet. The story is unique  in creating an alternative  universe from first principles:  all matter is   oriented in one of the six Euclidian directions.

This simple deviation  from our own universe leads to the creation of cubic celestial bodies and   allows a reimagination of  transportation, power generation, warfare,   architecture, and lovemaking, among other things. As an example, the  political conflict   leading to war is that both inhabited sides of the   planet generate hydroelectric power by draining a large body of water on   one side   through edge sluices, a cheap and easy source of energy that will ultimately destroy the planet if the water is drained too far.

What  drives this story is the relationship of the two main characters,  a girl  escaping from a classified weapons facility with terrible secrets she   refuses to share, and a rural boy who literally catches her  when she leaps   over the edge and soon learns he is the target of international espionage.   The novel is organized around a series of   revelations of the girl’s   secrets culminating with an answer to the ultimate question — who is  Celeste?

As you can probably tell even from my brief description, The Cube is a multidimensional narrative (pun intended!) that could simultaneously described as a science fiction novel as well as a moving love story and a dystopic utopia fiction,  similar  to George Orwell’s 1984.  You can discover this alternative universe, governed by different laws of physics but similar political motivations and machinations for power as in our world, on the links below:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXP7xYtrVeU]

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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Filed under book review, Book Review of The Cube, Book Review of The Cube: A Novel by Nat Karody, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love, love story, Nat Karody, new fiction, novel, novels, online fiction publisher, science fiction, The Cube, The Cube has landed (in bookstores)! Nat Karody's new science fiction novel, The Cube: A Novel, The Cube: A Novel by Nat Karody

Why We (Still) Love Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn

With an unforgettable elfish, delicate and childlike beauty and extraordinary talents in acting, languages and dance, Audrey Hepburn is also known as an avid humanitarian. Since I have been educated in a tradition of “cultural studies”, perhaps initiated by the French critic Roland Barthes–where significant cultural phenomena aren’t taken for granted, but rather analyzed and explained–I’d like to examine here some of the reasons why we (still) love Audrey Hepburn. The answer to this question is only obvious in hindsight, once the actress achieved not only worldwide fame, but also an iconic status as the symbol of classic–and classy– femininity. But millions of actresses aspire to this level of success and few attain it. So why and how did Audrey Hepburn achieve what others only dream about? My answer is that she truly had it all: a unique yet extraordinary beauty, charm, brains, talent, luck, compassion and character.

Her Many Talents

Born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in 1929 in Brussels, Belgium, Audrey had a knack for languages (she was fluent in English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian) and a natural aptitude for dance. When her family moved to Amsterdam, she took ballet lessons with Sonia Gaskell, one of the greatest Dutch ballerinas. Although very talented, at 5’7” Audrey was considered too tall to become a first-rate ballerina at the time. Nonetheless, the study of ballet gave her the grace, elegance and poise that would serve her well later on, when she embarked on her career as an actress.

Struggles, Character and Compassion

As is well known, Audrey Hepburn didn’t have an easy childhood. The years of hardship she and her family endured during WWII built her character and taught her how to become a survivor and have compassion for others. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, she suffered from malnutrition, anemia and respiratory issues. Her family barely had enough food to survive. But years later, in an interview, Hepburn remembers and expresses compassion for those who had it far worse: “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, as he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.”

These horrific memories fortified her while at the same time increasing her empathy. When she left her successful movie career to focus on her family and humanitarian issues, Audrey would be appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF.  Even four months before her death, when she was suffering from appendiceal cancer, Hepburn still thought about the plight of others. She made a visit to Somalia in 1992, emphasizing that empathy–particularly for children, who are the most innocent casualties of politics and war–is universal: “Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics.” Unfortunately, we are still waiting for this chiasmic reversal to happen.

“Luck Comes to Those Who Come Prepared”

Lefty Gomez remarked “I’d rather be lucky than good.” He was right. Most likely, without some luck and connections, nobody makes it to the top of any field, much less a more “subjective” field like acting. But all this is counterbalanced by one of my other favorite sayings about luck, attributed to Henri Poincaré“Luck comes to those who come prepared.” Without giving it one’s all–consistently and undaunted by hardship or periodic failures–success is unlikely. In her youth, Hepburn took a job as a London chorus girl—which though less prestigious than being a ballerina paid three times more than ballet–in order to support her family.

Luck also ran her way, however. She was spotted by a scout for the large American movie company Paramount Pictures. At first, they cast the budding actress in minor roles. Then, once she proved her talent, Hepburn landed a more significant part in Thorold Dickinson’s The Secret People (1952), in which she shone in the very fitting role of a ballerina. By chance—or good luck, once again—the popular French novelist Colette saw her performance and is said to have exclaimed “Voilà! There’s your Gigi.” This role would bring Hepburn international acclaim.

“Charm, Innocence and Talent”

By the time she was cast alongside Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn had all the promise of being a leading lady. Although the role of Princess Ann—a young woman who escapes the protocols of royalty to lead a more ordinary life and falls in love with an American journalist—was initially cast for Elizabeth Taylor, Hepburn stole the show in her screen test. William Wyler, the director, declared: “She had everything I was looking for: charm, innocence and talent. She was also very funny.” Initially, they were going to advertise the movie in terms of the more established and recognizable star—Gregory Peck—with Hepburn cast in a secondary role:  “Introducing Audrey Hepburn”.  Recognizing Audrey Hepburn’s charm and talent, however, Peck is said to have asked them to announce her name in the same way as his: “You’ve got to change that because she’ll be a big star and I’ll look like a big jerk.”

Classy and Classic Femininity: “The Audrey Hepburn Look”

His prediction came true. Hepburn won an Academy Award in 1953 for the movie and stole the hearts of audiences—and critics–worldwide. Her elfish, childlike yet elegant beauty, which graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1953, also inspired the “Audrey Hepburn look”, which is still a mark of classy and classic femininity to this day.  Yet even in this domain, Hepburn had a bit of luck. The famous fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy is responsible for creating the Audrey Hepburn style—particularly the little black dresses—that would inspire women’s fashions for decades, to this day. When told that he’d design a dress for “Ms. Hepburn” for the movie Sabrina in 1954, Givenchy mistakenly believed it would be for Katherine Hepburn, and expressed some disappointment when he found out that it wasn’t. But soon Audrey Hepburn won him over, forging a friendship–and collaboration on fashion—that would last for the rest of her life. The most recognizable style was the iconic Givenchy black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), a film inspired by a Truman Capote novella. But Hepburn characteristically shaped her role. The movie was initially supposed to be about the romance of Holly Golightly, a call girl from New York. Audrey Hepburn knew her boundaries—she declared, “I can’t play a hooker”—and played instead a character filled with femininity, grace and impish charm.

Audrey Hepburn had–and still has–a universal appealWomen wanted to be like her; men wanted to be with a woman like her. This is not necessarily the case for all beautiful women. There was something about Audrey Hepburn’s beauty that was childlike and unthreatening to women—unlike, for instance, the far more mature and overtly eroticized beauty of sex icons like Marilyn Monroe—yet still extremely seductive, even disarming, to men.

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Audrey Hepburn had a unique and astonishing form of beauty, many talents, intelligence, a little luck mixed with a lot of perseverance, modesty and class. Of course, these assets aren’t the ingredients of a recipe for success: a dab of this, a pinch of that.  The qualities that made Audrey Hepburn a great actress were, above all, also those that made her a great person: her genuine compassion and strength of character. Ultimately, it’s not the roles she played that made her an enduring cultural icon, but who she was. And this is why we (still) love Audrey Hepburn. 

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

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Review of Radu Ulmeanu’s Chermeza Sinucigasilor

Chermeza Sinucigasilor, a novel by Radu Ulmeanu

Radu Ulmeanu’s novel, Chermeza Sinucigasilor (Editura Pleiade, 2009) could be called an epopée of (anti)heroism that depicts the period immediately following the 1989 anti-communist revolution in Romania. The title itself, at least in Romanian, captures the mixture of lyrical abandon and cynical historicism that we find expressed in the novel through an intoxicatingly sensual and poetic style. The word “chermeza” is borrowed from the Dutch kermesse—whose roots are kermis or kerk (church) and mis (mass)– and refers to the mass that celebrates the foundation of a church or parish. Historically, the term also has a sinister connotation, as one of the first kermesse was the medieval parade in Brussels that occurred around 1370, when the town’s Jewish population was burned alive.

Ulmeanu’s novel shows with accuracy and depth the chaotic atmosphere around the Romanian revolution, with its mixture of idealism, hope and the cynical lust for power that kept many of the former Secret Police (Securitate) members and informants  in influential political and cultural positions even after the revolution. The most odious representative of this group is the sociopathic character Dragnea, who takes advantage of his political power to satisfy his perverse desire for hunting and raping young women.

Monica, a high school student who tries to resist the hedonist leanings of her mother and friends, falls victim to Dragnea’s predatory inclinations. Can the romance that develops between her and the main character, the hopelessly idealistic teacher, Grigore, save her? Or will she be another incarnation of Grigore’s first obsessive love—one that borders on idolatry—for the formerly untouchable Marta who has also been profaned by another?

There is, after all, a strong resemblance between the two young women. Both of them lose their virginity in painful and senseless ways to men who take advantage of them. Grigore’s love for both of them takes the form of a Platonic idealism that finds its literary echoes in the Abélard/Héloïse love story: a love that in its exalted form expresses a poetic and emotional ideal; while in its stereotyped form borders on the Madonna/Whore complex that feminists have criticized during the past few decades.

Without a doubt, there’s a strong idealist undercurrent in this novel, similar to the Hegelian dialectic traced by Julien Gracq in Au Chåteau d’Argol (1938). Only for Ulmeanu these philosophical echoes go back to the Platonic roots of idealism, in its dual depiction of love. Plato famously delineated two largely contradictory models of love: in The Symposium, he depicts eros as an abandoned, sensual, daemonic source of inspiration; while in The Republic and most of his other dialogues he depicts agape as a rational  mirror of the perfect, ideal Forms (of beauty, humanity, virtue, etc). In Chermeza Sinucigasilor we find the main character, Grigore, oscillating between these two largely antithetical forms of love. The young teacher is torn between his desincarnated Platonic love for the (formerly) untouchable Marta and his carnal desire for other young women, including Monica.

With psychological subtlety and stylistic finesse, Ulmeanu depicts Monica’s predicament. Harassed by the sociopath who raped her and desperate to find justice and respite; literally still haunted by Doru, her deceased boyfriend and first love who comes  back to her in nightmares and visions; embarrassed by insinuations of her mother’s affairs with her schoolmates; tempted by the libertine sensuality of her girlfriends, Monica seeks a way out of the tangled web which has become her life. In Grigore she hopes to find her salvation: a father-figure and a friend; a mentor and a lover; a kindred spirit and a savior, all in the same man.

In some respects, through her characterization, Ulmeanu picks up the themes from Nabokov’s legendary novel Lolita (1955), not only in subject matter but also in an exquisite literary style.  Last but not least, there are elements of magical realism in Ulmeanu’s complex and beautifully written novel. Discussing the works of Nobel-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) play with myth and fantasy to offer a deeper representation of reality, the critic Matthew Strecher defines magical realism as “what happens wheen a highly detaild, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

That something, in Ulmeanu’s novel, is the figure of the vampire. Only in Chermeza Sinucigasilor we don’t encounter the crude vampires of genre fiction, but more subtle, liminal figures, neither dead nor alive, which haunt the characters’ conscience and consciousness. Interweaving historical fiction, magical realism and love story that explores and transgresses the limits of both carnal love and the aspirations to a philosophical and political idealism, Radu Ulmeanu’s novel, Chermeza Sinucigasilor, is a contemporary masterpiece.

Excerpt from the novel:

“He reproached Martha something. And, of course, he reproached her exactly what he allowed any other woman. The fact that Marta had slept with another drove him crazy, electrified him, even paralyzing him for a period of time. Afterwards, he distanced himself from her and began to look at their past with an increasingly cold condescendence. More precisely, the cataclysm lingered within, in his subconscious, remaining active underneath, which precluded any overture towards her. He longed to return to her, but Marta no longer offered the demon—or maybe the angel—before which lay prostrate in the past. Any other woman became superior to Marta solely in her latent capacity to re-electrify him; to stir in him a horrible deception; to propell him once more—as he now desired–to the limits of despair.” (Chermeza Sinucigasilor, 18)

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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