A nice little essay on Céline by Adelaide Docx:
With his speech rhythms, his slang, his heavy use of ellipsis, he embroils you in the writing. But this is much more than a trick of style; it is the work of a wildly original imagination. His writing is intensely physical: a New York subway train is “a cannonball filled with quivering flesh”; he describes the “long, oozing house fronts” of the poor Paris suburbs and the “rickety dribbling children with nosefuls of fingers.”
Imre Kertész explains in his 2002 Nobel lecture how a commonplace moment during the Holocaust became warped in everyone’s memories—and how he managed to un-warp it:
I am speaking of the twenty minutes spent on the arrival platform of the Birkenau extermination camp—the time it took people clambering down from the train to reach the officer doing the selecting. I more or less remembered the twenty minutes, but the novel demanded that I distrust my memory.
No matter how many survivors’ accounts, reminiscences and confessions I had read, they all agreed that everything proceeded all too quickly and unnoticably. The doors of the railroad cars were flung open, they heard shouts, the barking of dogs, men and women were abruptly separated, and in the midst of the hubbub, they found themselves in front of an officer. He cast a fleeting glance at them, pointed to something with his outstretched arm, and before they knew it they were wearing prison clothes.
I remembered these twenty minutes differently. Turning to authentic sources, I first read Tadeusz Borowski’s stark, unsparing and self-tormenting narratives, among them the story entitled “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” Later, I came upon a series of photographs of human cargo arriving at the Birkenau railroad platform—photographs taken by an SS soldier and found by American soldiers in a former SS barracks in the already liberated camp at Dachau.
I looked at these photographs in utter amazement. I saw lovely, smiling women and bright-eyed young men, all of them well-intentioned, eager to cooperate. Now I understood how and why those humiliating twenty minutes of idleness and helplessness faded from their memories. And when I thought how all this was repeated the same way for days, weeks, months and years on end, I gained an insight into the mechanism of horror; I learned how it became possible to turn human nature against one’s own life.
If you have never driven over country roads it is useless for me to tell you about it; you wouldn’t understand anyway. But if you have, I would rather not remind you of it. …
—Mikhail Bulgakov, A Country Doctor’s Notebook
Edward Jay Epstein describes Vladimir Nabokov’s literature class at Cornell circa 1954. Among other things, he got paid $10 a week to be Nabokov’s “auxiliary course assistant”:
Every Wednesday, the movies changed at the four theaters in downtown Ithaca, called by Nabokov “the near near,” “the near far,” “the far near,” and “the far far.” My task, which used up most of my weekly payment, was to see all four new movies on Wednesday and Thursday, and then brief him on them on Friday morning. He said that since he had time to see only one movie, this briefing would help him decide which one of them, if any, to see.
Sadly, their relationship soon curdles:
My undoing came just after he had lectured on Gogol’s Dead Souls.
The day before I had seen The Queen of Spades, a 1949 British film based on Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 short story. It concerned a Russian officer who, in his desperation to win at cards, murdered an elderly Russian countess while trying to learn her secret method of picking cards in the game of faro. He seemed uninterested in having me recount the plot, which he must have known well, but his head shot up when I said in conclusion that it reminded me of Dead Souls. Vera also turned around and stared directly at me. Peering intently at me, he asked, “Why do you think that?”
I instantly realized I had made a remark that apparently connected with a view he had, or was developing, concerning these two Russian writers. At that point, I should have left the office, making some excuse about needing to give the question more thought. Instead, I said pathetically, “They are both Russian.”
His face dropped, and Vera turned back to face him. While my gig continued for several more weeks, it was never the same.
Lawyers, guns, and yakuza
There’s an intriguing theory in Misha Glenny’s McMafia on why the yakuza took on such a prominent role in Japanese life after World War II. It was all thanks to strict licensing quotas for lawyers:
“Traditionally, of course, the yakuza has always been involved in prostitution and gambling. Everyone more or less accepted this state of affairs, and that accounted for the bulk of its income,” says Yukio Yamanouchi. “But in the 1960s, it started getting involved in civilian affairs, and this soon became one of its greatest revenue sources.” …
This “move into civilian affairs” (i.e., resolving disputes) in the 1960s came about because of a law passed in 1949. In order to discourage the use of litigation, which was felt to be divisive and contrary to the spirit of wa (harmony) that underpins Japanese society, the postwar government ruled that only 5,000 lawyers would be permitted to graduate from the Legal Research and Training Institute in Tokyo each year. The great majority registered in Tokyo and Osaka and sought comfortable and lucrative positions working on behalf of one of the zaibatsu. Few were interested in representing members of the public, and before long the entire judicial system was clogged up with civil cases that made the deliberations in Dickens’s Bleak House reasoned and swift by comparison.
“It was only a short step before people realized that they could use the yakuza for resolving a host of things—they have since developed a close involvement with all manner of transactions in the property business of course; but they also act as bankruptcy assessors; in anything, really, where the courts out to be responsible, such as insurance claims after car accidents,” outlined Yamanouchi.
The numbers are pretty striking: In the late 1990s, Japan had one lawyer for every 5,995 people. The United States has one lawyer for every 285 people. A few years ago, the Japanese government decided to expand the quotas, but the resulting mini-deluge of lawyers (an extra 1,000 or so per year) caused officials to quickly reconsider.