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July 2011

From a Distance: A Review of "Lives Other Than My Own," by Emmanuel Carrere

119942496 Few who experience death on a personal scale, as in the death of a friend or relative, or on a mass scale, like that from a terrorist killing or natural disaster, are unaffected.  In addition to the immediate, visceral emotions that can overwhelm, there is often a deep wrestling with the theodicies of the events, questions such as "how could a good God allow such pain and suffering and death?" or "how can such evil exist?"  Such trauma has both led to faith and been the end of faith, and yet seldom does one pass through such events without brushing up against such issues.  French novelist, biographer, filmaker, and journalist Emmanuel Carrere may be an exception.

Lives Other Than My Own is Carrere's 2009 French memoir, recently translated and forthcoming in English by Metropolitan Books (September 2011).  The memoir is actually two stories, unrelated except for the fact that the author experienced both.  The shorter is his telling of the effect of the 2004 Asian tsunami on a family with whom he became acquainted while vacationing in Sri Lanka.  The couple, Jerome and Delphine, lost their young daughter, Juliette, in the ensuing waves.  More observer than one intimately involved  in assisting the couple (in contrast to his partner, Helene), his description of the tragic events and the effect of Juliette's death on this family is oddly dispassionate, like it is viewed from a distance.  Carrere himself describes his detachment this way: as he watches Helene spring into action to assist the family, he says "I look at Helene and feel clumsy, helpless, useless.  I almost resent her for being so caught up in the task at hand that she's paying no attention to me. It's almost as if I no longer exist."  And yet this event draws him closer to Helene at a time when they were considering separating. 

Perhaps his detachment is a symptom of his self-described "inability to love" that he blames for drawing them apart.  Elsewhere, he describes himself as one who live[s] in disatisfaction, constant tension, running after dreams of glory and laying waste to my loves because I always imagine that one day, somewhere else, I'll find something better."  Yet his refreshingly honest appraisal of himself, even to the extent of portraying himself in unflattering ways, never seems to cause him to ask ultimate questions that may call for transcendent answers, even for God.  Perhaps it is symptomatic of a largely secular European environment, a closed, naturalistic system where God is consigned to wishful thinking, the province of the old or uneducated.

Returning to Paris with Helene, they are once again touched by tragedy.  Helene learns that her sister, also named Juliette, had cancer again.  The remainder and by far larger part of the book concerns this other story, the sickness and ultimate death of Helene's cancer-ridden sister, as well as its effect on her husband Patrice and her friend and co-worker, Etienne.  Along the way, we are treated to richly descriptive biographies of Etienne, Juliette's fellow judge who suffered the amputation of his leg at an early age, as well as Juliette's left-leaning cartoon-drawing husband, Patrice.  Many of the intimate details of their lives are laid bare under Carrere's journalist's eye.  Sometimes it seems embarrassingly voyeuristic to be looking into their personal lives in such a way.

Carrere is adept at describing people, settings, and events, and yet while a party to much of what surrounds Juliette's dying, he is at the same time emotionally distant, an observer who rarely professes to how the emotions of the events weigh on him, whether describing Juliette's decline or the impact on her three children left without a mother.  Perhaps this is just an experienced journalist's posture, allowing him to remain objective.  Or perhaps it is an emotional detachment the author struggles with.  Maybe it is both.  And yet his account is an insightful window into the lives of two ordinary people who grapple with handicaps, illness, and death.

While the book generally sustained my interest, the section which details the attempt by Etienne and Juliette, both judges, to secure some favorable law for debtors in a debtor-creditor case, is a bit arcane.  To non-lawyer types, this would likely not be of interest, and even for me, a lawyer, it detracted from the more universal appeal of the events and personalities described in the rest of the book.  I think Carrere would have done well to leave much of this section out or significantly revise it.

In the end, I was unsatisfied with the effect all these events had on Carrere.  Summing it up, he concludes: "I love my life now (no great achievement, since it's so pleasant), and my philosophy can be summed up in the remark made on the evening of her son's coronation by Madame Letizia, the mother of Napolean, who murmered, 'Let's hope it lasts.'"  Really?  Is that all?  Better yet to walk out under the stars, the same stars the Psalmist beheld, and say, "When I look at your heavens, the work/ of your fingers,/ the moon and the stars, which you/ have set in place,/ what is man that you are mindful of him,/ and the son of man that you care for/ him?" (Ps. 8:3-4, ESV).  Better to say, simply, thank you.

I recommend Lives Other Than My Own for the writing, for the nuanced insight into lives not our own.  Set in the context of a universe "charged with the grandeur of God" (to use Hopkins' phrase), you may find a plentiful hope, faith, and love and go back to your own life, renewed, from a distance no more.

Where Have All the Writers Gone? A Review of "Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life," by Evan Hughes

Brooklyn Where have all the writers gone?  To Brooklyn, no doubt.  At least a convincing case for the literary magnetism of that New York borough is made by journalist and critic Evan Hughes.  He should know too: he lives in Brooklyn.

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life (Henry Holt & Company, releasing Aug. 16, 2011), is part literary history --- a series of insightful profiles of writers who made their homes both literally and lyrically in the Brooklyn Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and other neighborhoods of the borough --- part urban history, and part literary analysis.  Reading it is a bit like having an engrossing (if mostly one-sided) conversation with a neighbor steeped in the history of a place and its literary people, well-known writers like Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and Truman capote, and lesser known figures such as Marianne Moore, Richard Wright, and Paul Auster, spanning a time period from the mid-nineteenth century to the current day, from Leaves of Grass to Sophies Choice to the contemporary novel Great House, and from a Brooklyn which was a quiet village of 5000 in Whitman's early years to a city in urban decline in the Sixties to the mixed and often gentrified brownstones and Starbucks of today.  The author moves through much time and space in the course of some 284 pages, and yet the pacing seems appropriate, slow enough to take in the sights and sounds that inhabit the pages and yet quick enough not to bog down in minutia.  The author's thesis --- that the literature of Brooklyn's writers has a special ability to offer an intimate view of a time and place --- is well taken.  He ably shows how these writers brought this place to life.

While it may be quite a time-span to cover, the details are not glossed over but often recorded.  For example, imagine Walt Whitman humming arias as he walked down the street, or shouting out lines from Shakespeare or Homer from a stagecoach or at the seashore.  We're given a list of streets on which he lived, one with an actual address where the home stills stands, and we begin to put a literary giant on the ground, a human being not a god, after all (regardless of what he thought of himself).  Hughes has a way of always rooting the authors he discusses in houses and on streets with names, some of which still resound.  That's just what these writers would do, what all good writers do.

In addition to watching a village grow into a city, there are many authors to discover about whom I have had little to no knowledge.  Take Richard Wright, the author of the 1945 memoir, Black Boy.  Amazingly enough, at publication of Wright's landmark book, Brooklyn was only 4% black, something that came to change over the ensuing years as blacks migrated north from the South.  Few people at that time (and virtually none of them black) had recounted the racism and poverty of the South with such raw emotion as did Wright.  Because of Hughes, I'll read Wright's book, even if I'm coming to it a bit late.

It's impossible to read about the lives of writers, or any artists for that matter, without an overpowering sense of the hardship, tragedy, and excesses that overshadow their lives, much of it their own doing, and much of it reflected in and influenced by the state of the city around them.  A bohemian lifestyle and often fascination with radical causes is common.  Good writers, yes, but one suspects they may not all have been good neighbors, angst-ridden as they often are.  Perhaps Thomas Wolfe summed up their longing well when he spoke of the search for a "father," not just literally but also metaphorically in a longing for "the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger."  Were one to approach these writers from a theological viewpoint, perhaps all of what they did and wrote is about the longing for meaning, for a father-god around whom to orient their lives.  Alfred Kazin may have said that "[s]alvation would come by the word, the long-awaited and fatefully exact word that only the true writer would speak," and yet reading of the unhappiness that many of these writers experienced, one may have to conclude that salvation must be by some other means, some other Word.  Art may illuminate, but it does not save.  Perhaps as Hughes concludes, "in the end we comprehend just a little bit better the whole incomprehensible whirl of American life," or perhaps these writers only draw attention to its emptiness.  It's a beginning.

I recommend Literary Brooklyn both for its attentiveness to writers and to place, to the words that open up life in one very American city and thereby illuminate them all.  You may not have been to Brooklyn.  Nor may you have read many of the writers told of here.  Yet if you read this book you'll better be able to see the house, street, and neighborhood outside your door and be challenged to both read and write of your own unique place.  You may even better know what questions to ask about your own life and how to look for answers.

The Reading Promise

Recently, I started reading nightly to my daughter, now practically 17.  I know it's a bit late, and it's not as if I never read to her before, but I seem to recall that somewhere along the line she decided she didn't want to be read to but would read to herself.  That fits.  She never needed as much care and maintenance as her older brother.  Every child is different.  But she denies that now.

I was challenged to begin reading to her again by a book called The Reading Promise.  The author, Alice Ozma, a now-grown daughter, writes of the promise she and her father made to each other: that he would read to her for 1000 nights straight. Or was it 100 nights?  They can't seem to agree either.  Regardless, they ended up reading to each other for 3218 nights for at least ten minutes a night, often longer, whether in person, by phone, half-asleep, or barely conscious --- a reading streak ---one that did not end until Alice went to college.

I've made no such promise, just an indefinite and open-ended commitment.  I can't best Alice's Dad.  My daughter will go to college in about 775 days, a too-short period of time put that way.  But maybe I can do that much.  And maybe she'll remember.

I had good parents, but I do not recall ever being read to.  I'm sure it happened.  What I do know is that my parents read quite a bit: my father, Popular Mechanics; my mother, everything else.  Cleaning out her house last year, I discovered the 1950s equivalent of Harlequin romances, books she must have blown through before having me. I don't know where she kept them, because I read most everything else in her library: William Barclay commentaries, missionary stories, World Book encyclopedias, Billy Graham books, devotionals, and at least part of Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln.  (I can't imagine she read all that.)  When younger, I'd climb up on the cabinet beneath the bookcase so I could reach the books, pull one out, enjoying the bookish smells, and curl up in a cabinet, a chair, or some other out of the way place for a long trip in words.  Sometimes I'd go on for four hours at a time, I'm told, not coming up to eat, for air, lost in a book world.  I even joined the Science Fiction Book Club at eight years of age.  (Some of that stuff was pretty racy, you know.) But they didn't read to me.

Anyway, I'll tell you how it goes later, butI have to go now.  I need to read to my daughter.  I made a promise, you know.  When I tire I'm buoyed by the hope down deep that someday when she screeches out of here on her way to life, she'll look in the rearview mirror and remember that promise, and all those nights of words. . . and her dad. . . and smile --- not primarily because we read a book, but because for 10 minutes we had each other.


Steady, Now

"That night, in a properly-made bunk, I reached out to touch the wooden wall beside me.  It looked a little like home and there was a faint scent of pine."  (Sylvester Jacobs, in Born Black)

Sad, really, that you can no longer purchase the long-out-of-print Born Black.  Published in 1977, it is the brief biography (thus far) of an Oklahoma born black man, Sylvester Jacobs.  Jacobs' story races from growing up in a racially divided small town, to Moody Bible Institute and its unwritten rule against interracial dating, to missions in Europe, and finally, to a chalet in Huemoz, Switzerland, where he was introduced to Francis and Edith Schaeffer and the ministry of L'Abri.  There the pain of racism melted along with his anger, his faith grew, he discovered his vocation of photography, and this very black American met and married a very white English woman.

Jacobs is just one of the many people whose lives were touched by the ministry of Francis and Edith Scaheffer.  The chapter title says it all: "They Gave Me Back My Life."  More about Jacobs later.  But the phrase I set forth above, as simple as it seems, is one that resonated with me.  Jacobs is alone on his bunk in a place where he doesn't know anyone, a place of uncertainty where he doesn't fully understand the conversations about theology and philosophy and art.  He is a long way from Oklahoma, a long way from home.  What does he do?  He reaches out to touch something real, something beyond the invisible phantoms of fear, doubt, and anxiety.  Touching that bedroom wall, he sensed home; he left the storm and found an anchor.  He sensed something solid.

I often do that.  I'm shaken by something and I reach out and touch something solid.  A tree will work.  The wall, a bedpost, a valued book.  I remind myself that not everything changes, that some things can be depended upon.  In a world of ceaseless activity and increasing velocity and shallowness, I hold on.  And in the best of such times, I see through the thing I touch to the changeless God behind it all, the One the Psalmist says is the Rock of our salvation.  Solid and sure.  I say to myself, "Steady, now."