I’ve been reading Doctorow since Ragtime in 1975 (a year after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, fwiw). I loved Ragtime – loved it! But none of Doctorow’s novels that I’ve read since have been nearly so good – including this one.
To tell the truth – I’m glad Doctorow got this out of his system because his later works, The March and Homer & Langley are much better – I’ve not read Andrew’s Brian as yet.
Anyway, one of my trusty reading groups has decided this should be our May discussion so ta-da – (And again thank you for choosing for me because I sometimes think I’ve forgot how.)
So what do we have here? Thomas Pemberton, an elderly Episcopalian priest, has been dealing with minor thefts but when he finds that his parish’s alter cross has been stolen it amazes both him and the police- it’s worthless. Then he gets a call from the new local Jewish rabbi, Joshua Blumenthal, rabbi who tells him the cross has showed up on his roof. – Oh dear.
Of course with Doctorow things are never so clear cut. There is also a local novelist (is Everett really E.L.?) who is writing up a story about the theft – and a whole lot more.
Everett interviews Sarah Blumenthal, Joshua’s wife and also a rabbi, about her father who spent time in the Kovno ghetto. This leads to a major backstory dealing with the atrocities in the camp from the eyes of a 10-year old boy. They’re fairly graphic and they show some braver defiance on the part of the Jews against the system.
But in the middle of this story, Sarah is revealed to be a widow, and Everett in love with her, so I guess Joshua is dead? – (p .98) Or is this Sarah’s mother?
And a movie set in New York reveals a set within a set with actors not knowing if they are becoming shadows or if they are real – it’s similar to the novelist who has lost his way – namely – Everett or Edgar – E.L.
And who is thinking about the stars and cosmos? – It’s might be Pem, but more likely it’s Everett -( E.L.) as the note-taking novelist.
This is a lot of craziness in terms of structure and ideas but I just read on – a couple times there is singing and applause from somewhere – another staged event like the novels or the movies or the books – how about the various church services? The cross on the Synagogue?
There are little interludes about nature including the stars and universe thing but also the Arctic and it’s life. This is in contrast?
Benno and the partisans work to get those who can and want to out of the Kovno ghetto. (Dr. Koenig here is not the famous Nazi from Auschwitz – lots of Koenigs in the world. I believe this one is fictitious.)
Over a year has passed. Everett, the novelist, is more concerned with the passing of the cross to the Jews – metaphorically passing responsibility for the Holocaust? 0r of putting the symbol of a true religion back on the Jews? That for salvation one must look to the Jews
I suppose the major theme is the meaning of life – what place does evil (the Holocaust) have?
What do we mean when we say … even if all the possible scientific questions are answered, our problem is still not touched at all ?
But a serious second theme is the theft of the cross – whose fault is it about the Holocaust? I think the thieves are metaphorically putting the cross on the Synagogue to show that the burden of lies with the Christians – it’s an awkward metaphor because if that’s the case then strictly speaking then the Torah would go in the Church. But that wouldn’t be very visual or have much emotional impact. Maybe it’s to tell those who see it that Christians did not do and have not done much about it – that their work is here. ???
And we can’t see the reality because of our own “solipsistic consciousness” and its inability to see outside itself. Wittgenstein – philosophical statements are less important in real life than natural science statements? When you get there you will know it? No more philosophical statements to make then – just living.
And now Everett tells his story and that of his father in a kind of blank verse – it’s similar to that of EL but the names have changed and I don’t know what else.
Back to Kovno ghetto where Sarah’s father was and Everett is writing up. Bad place –
Everett is in love with Sarah -( as is Thomas Pemberton). But Everett’s version of Sarah’s fathers’s story is wrong in the details but right in the substance and Sarah’s father’s voice – father is in a home in Chicago now. Joshua went to Kovno to find diary – died trying – and now Pem has gone to Moscow seeking it.
And Pem tells Everett his story – this is mostly Everett’s notes for a novel. He sees the displacement of the cross as being symbolic – a sign. and he takes off to Moscow to find the Jewish diary – even-steven.
Theater – Greeks – Sophocles, film, actress, mutilation scene, horrors. And Everett is interviewed by a movie director who seems to pick actors prone to the event which kills the character he plays. Occult? Fate –
And back to nature.
And Ludwig Wittgenstein (as written by Everett) is in the classroom doing a different performance – philosophy teacher.
And a then comes a little “Dancing in the Dark” followed by a free verse philosophical inquiry into the – um – nature of man and the falsity of his surroundings, as well as himself, because outside is the reality while inside they’ve been the fantasy of movies and stars? completely dark.
Pem’s bishop from Everett on the subject of Pemberton – “…he signed on to the heresy charges against” the very progressive controversial Bishop Pike. So Pem has the 1960s protest “father” against the classic “historic” church father, his own natural father. – this is shades of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I read earlier this very month.
“Reason no less than faith sanctifies the ethical life. Both would liberate man from himself.
Pem was a protester – Berrigans – Philip and Daniel – Catholic priests who took radical non-violent action to protest the Vietnam War. Revolutionary Christianity.
Pem’s bishop a letter to Pem – says,
“For your entire generation of cowardly namby-pamby, self-involved, gutless unregenerate hippies who enjoy eh good life of american hegemony without wanting to shoulder the burdens of it.”
And back to Everett’s bio which is written in free verse – or in lines of varying length at any rate. Does Doctorow – or Everettt – fancy himself a war poet? But some of this is in the point of view of Everett’s brother, Ronald, a WWII airman.
A bit on Sarah’s father and back to nature.
Then back to Everett but how much is true – was he a reporter for the Times or not? Did he quit to write novels because the endings would alleviate his cynicism? Why did he tell Pem’s Bishop he’d never stopped to being a reporter? – This guy is the epitome of unreliable narrators – and it feels like Doctorow has taken a checklist of post modern literary devices and simply used as many as he could in order to stick as much stuff as he could into this novel.
Sarah and Pem are in Vilnius seeing Joshua who is in a hospital – in a coma -can’t be moved. He was assaulted outside a boarded up synagogue. He left notes of what he had done in looking for the diary.
Nazis – lists of what was confiscated from the Jews.
“I will say, posthumously…” (?) I believe this is Wittgenstein? Philosophizing on language, – light and quantum physics.
Cincinnati Nazi – Demjanjuk? Everett hits the old Nazi with his bicycle – the guy dies.
—Of great songs, standards, composers will tell you the basic principle of their composition: Keep it simple. The simpler, the better. (p. 198)
Too bad Doctorow didn’t follow this advice.
Pem finds the Jewish archives now for the diary – tracks them to Moscow and manages to get them home where the chest is opened and a lot of papers and photos are there.
James Pike see Wiki –
Louis Slotin – see Wiki
“Oh Lord, our Narrator, who made a text from nothing …” p. 209
And Pem and Sarah marry but she’s not happy and and she finally dances but in the end they divorce –
Movies – polemic on language and movies – Pem leaves the church.
Free verse on stories and getting drunk, wars and sex and drugs, spiders, brown bodies – a kind of hallucination.
Pen explains defrocking –
Song and comedian about love and then it’s confused – Pem’s narrating, but it might be Everett’s novel, about – poor poor people, young girls sex, fighting, music, he still loves Sarah – and he’s nuts.
Everett – now feels self-confidence due to killing of Nazi – so he goes after another bad guy – Guatemalan death squad leader now restauranteur in a Queens mall. – Kills him – another accident.
Pem is packing up
Reception to honor movie director: (p. 236)
“…a sacrament of the movie culture, the denigration of the literary is most satisfactory when performed by the literary folks themselves.”
“New films could b made about audiences watching themselves in films nd talking back to them. And then films about those films, and so on into infinity.”
Sunday afternoon in the park with Pem and Sarah and Everett and a strange woman.
Back to nature – this time in the garbage dump north of Madrid. Natural life infringing on Central Park – “Quantum weirdness”
Pem in civilian garb goes to the poverty hospice – looking for Mcilwaine – to divulge confession.
Now Pem is converting – to marry Sarah – and there is a very interesting confrontation between the new congregants of the synagogue and Sarah – a physicist clears it all up – with a bit more coincidence for Everett.
And Sarah addresses the American Studies in Religion – Whenever we kill we seem to have to invoke God’s name –
Pem gives a sermon at his wedding – goes on and on with an elaborate list of evils which God could create.
Everett goes to a museum and sees a train – Disney does Wittgenstein. The contemporary city is in trouble – disease and plagues, massacres, television and computers are illegal, the wealthy live in enclaves, worse.
And in the movie – Pem and Sarah come on –