Suzy Hansen, Nicole Krauss & Tarjei Vesaas

Hansen_notesAs a fairly well educated American who thinks she understands something of the world, I found Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World a painful read. Although I was a teenage Vietnam war protester, have marched against our involvement in countless wars since then, and thought I was a somewhat well-informed critic of many aspects of our foreign policy, Hansen opened my eyes to my ignorance of the scope of American imperialism worldwide, specifically the role of the U.S. in remaking the world after WWII.

Hansen, a reporter, moves to Turkey at age 29 in 2007 on a writing fellowship. She’s an Ivy League graduate who’s written for New York publications, convinced of her sophistication and her view of the world. James Baldwin, who also sought refuge in Turkey, is something of a muse to her and it’s initially through Baldwin that she begins to question some of her assumptions about white America.

Slowly, through conversations with non-Westerners and thoughtful reading, she comes to understand how the non-Western world views America. And it’s not a pretty picture. Among her discoveries are the extent to which the U.S. has supported the religious right in the Middle East and aided the rise of Islamic extremism. Her understanding of the history of Turkey’s rulers and the current political situation is clear-eyed and informative, as is her analysis of what brought on Greece’s collapse.

On the less global political side, she throws in some interesting perceptions about Conrad Hilton and his role in insulating Americans from the seamy exotic side of life aboard and and the reason for the apolitical bias of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. If you ever wondered why suburban divorce (hello Johns Updike and Cheever) is a cornerstone of American fiction, Hansen has the answer.

Hansen’s observations about American arrogance and myopia are never strident. Nevertheless they deliver a quiet imperative, that we begin to challenge our assumptions about American superiority and exceptionalism and see ourselves the way others see us. Her book brought to mind my feelings when I heard Bryan Stevenson speak about how America has never really addressed slavery the same way Germany has dealt with the Holocaust. When you drive through the deep south, as I did recently, there is close to nothing that commemorates slave market

For many of us this is not a happy time in America. In the midst of all our indignation and rage, it may be healthy to take a good long look at ourselves and see how we got here.

Krauss_forestNicole Krauss is a fiercely intelligent, deeply thoughtful writer and all her talent is on display in her new novel Forest Dark. It’s the story of two Jewish protagonists, an aging lawyer intent on giving away all his possessions and a 39-year-old mother and blocked writer who’s unhappy in her marriage. Both have a strong attachment to Israel and both travel there seeking some kind of transformation.

Jules Epstein, the lawyer, whose wealth includes works by Matisse and Sergeant hanging on his walls, is recovering from the death of his parents and looking for a way to commemorate them. Nicole, named after the author herself, thinks the trip to Israel, specifically the Tel Aviv Hilton where she’s spent time with her family, will unlock a story she has yet to tell.

The two stories never intersect but in each the central character is trying to fill an emptiness and answer some big questions, both practical and spiritual.

Nicole’s journey takes her on a roller coaster ride with a mysterious man who wants her to write the end of an unfinished Kafka play. He introduces her to a reimagined end of life for Kafka in Israel and involves her in a series of events that can only be described as Kafkaesque. And Jules’s quest leads to his involvement in a film about King David.

This is not a novel in which all loose ends are tied up. Krauss asks more questions than she answers. But the result is deeply satisfying as the questions are really those about how we choose to live our lives.

One of my favorite passages takes place when a realtor, showing a piece of property to Jules, ponders Americans’ love/hate relationship with Israel:

he knew better than to trust the first flush of American enthusiasm. Knew how they came, and for a week fell in love with the urgency and the argument and the warmth, with the way everyone sits in the cafes and talks and gets into each other’s lives, the way if even on the outside Israel is obsessed with borders, on the inside it lives without boundaries. How there’s no disease of loneliness here, and very taxi driver is a prophet and every salesman at the should will tell you the story of his brother and his wife, and the next thing you know the guy behind you in line is chiming in, and soon enough the crummy quality of the towels doesn’t matter anymore, because the stories and the mess and the craziness—all that life!—are so much more essential….

After a week or two they start to feel differently, these Americans. The strength starts to stink of aggression, and the directness becomes pushy, it begins to grate how Israelis have no manners, how they have no respect for personal space, no respect for anything, and doesn’t anyone do anything in Tel Aviv aside from sit around talking and going to the beach? … And so just in the nick of time before they put down the deposit on a two-bedroom in the new glass high-rise going up over Neve Tzedek, it’s back in the cab to the airport with their suitcases fragrant with za’atar and laden with silver Judaica from Hazorfim, and their Lexus keys newly hung on a hamsa.

She so totally nails it.

Vesaas_birdsOn a completely different note, spare, simple and elegant are words that best describe Tarjei Vesaas’s The Birds. The book, set in the Norwegian countryside, is told entirely from the perspective of mentally disabled Mattis, who lives with his sister Hege, who supports them (barely) by knitting sweaters.

Mattis’s disability makes him unable to work, and, perhaps, also leaves him acutely aware of nature—the path of a woodcock, a lightning storm. He is aware of his limitations and Vesaas’s description of his interior world is sensitive and full of wonder. The pride he feels, following a small victory, as when he successfully ferries two young woman across the river, is joyful and inspiring.

When Hege falls in love with a lumberjack and the siblings’ life together is threatened, Mattis goes into a tailspin. Vesaas tells an ostensibly quiet story but one that seethes with Mattis’s inner quicksilver emotions.

Vessas is a master storyteller. It’s no surprise he’s one of Norway’s most celebrated writers and I’m happy to have discovered him.