Saturday, September 03, 2011

Grisham and Tevye

I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere I developed a habit of reading junk novels - Thomas Harris, Dan Brown, John Grisham.  Before I was married while I didn't read fiction that often, when I did it was apt to be more serious stuff - A Bend in the River, A Flag for Sunrise, the Smiley trilogy and a lot of other le Carr√©.   For a while I was a member of the Book of the Month Club and through that I believe I read a lot of Nadine Gordimer; it's sad to say but I can't remember.  Some titles arrived by accident, if I recall.  I read Ordinary People that way.   Over some summer vacations I even read "classics," a promise to self begun in college.  I know I read Invisible Man one summer and The Tin Drum in another.  It's not that I completely lost doing this after I got married.  Having seen the movie I read A Passage to India and before and during a trip to Taiwan I read a lot of Faulkner.  I also read a fair amount of non-fiction as pleasure reading.  Two books from then  that come to mind now are David Halberstam's The Reckoning and Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly.  And I used to subscribe to the The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and read each pretty much from cover to cover.

The junk novels went along with family trips, particularly going to Florida to see my parents when the kids were very young.  It was a schlepp.   On trips you ate "comfort food," an expression I picked up from my wife, and you had "treats," something to break up the monotony (and on the planes also as a way to deal with the discomfort of being jammed into the seats).  The junk novels as pure escape provided a mental equivalent.  When I was in sleep away camp as a kid we read comic books during "rest hour' after lunch.  The junk novels provided the same sort of feel and you could stay with them for more than an hour.

For a while I only read the junk novels while on the road.  At home during holiday I found escape through computer games.  I loved Zork (and not that long ago downloaded it for play under the command prompt, though I haven't gotten into again).  The last one I can recall playing was Myst.  I don't believe it was a conscious choice, the way it was with playing video games with the kids, but I went cold turkey after that.  This was around the same time that my dad passed away.  My wife's dad passed away less than a year later.  We made fewer family trips after that.  The junk novels became part and parcel of the R&R while at home.

I'm not yet ready to abandon the activity entirely, though because my time is more abundant now there is less of a need to renew oneself with escapism.  But I have been doing a fair amount of heavy reading recently and I knew I'd have to read a good deal of economics in the near future to prepare for a new course I'm teaching in the spring.  So I decided I "needed" a treat before doing that.

The book I chose was The Testament, which I had downloaded earlier on my iPad.  The iPad is now my favorite way to read things, for a few different reasons.  First and foremost, I get to choose the size of the font.  Second, I tend to brutalize paper books - the binding and I are sworn enemies and I also bend the cover. There's none of that problem with the iPad.  And there's no need for a bookmark.  Of course, my Kindle did all of that too.  But I fairly often need a fix to check my email or something on the Web.and I do listen to music while I read.  All of that is integrated with the iPad.  Before I used to need 3 devices to do that, which is ridiculous.

I started The Testament earlier, but I couldn't get into it at all.  The opening is brutal - an affront to the sensibilities.  It didn't create the flow that other Grisham novels had done for me.  This time around I told myself to get through the beginning and see if the flow returns after that.  It did.  But I began to ask myself - does Grisham have a template and does he simply vary the story line a bit but otherwise stick with the template?  I was getting less pleasure with this book than I had with others I've read.  The characters seemed too flat.  The lawyers, Grisham's emblem is to produce stories about lawyers, are either entirely venal and then not very bright or extremely shrewd and with some backbone, with the exception of the protagonist who has some ethical conflict and has both aspects to his personality.  The other characters are equally without nuance.    There are numerous bad guys, all despicable.  The protagonist has a few friends, who remain true.  The story proceeds as if the bad guys will win out, but of course at the end they do not.  They may not get their just desserts, but they only get enough that our protagonist can achieve the outcome he is after, finding some inner peace with himself for doing so.  This general outline is just as accurate for The Firm, I watched the movie on TV not that long ago, as it is forThe Testament.

One first in The Testament is Grisham's use of religion as a way to designate the non-lawyer good guys.  This struck a chord with me, I suppose because having recently read Ryan Lizza's piece on Michell Bachmann and thereby becoming aware of how important faith is to Tea Party Representatives, it was striking how different a picture Grisham painted.  There are two Christian characters in The Testament.  One is the sole beneficiary of the huge estate, but as it turns out she doesn't want the money.  She is a missionary and a doctor working in the Pantanal in Brazil with the indigenous Indians, tending to their health and teaching them to read, especially the Gospel. She is the sole white person in the community, middle aged, entirely committed to her missionary work, which is her life purpose.  The other is a minister, extraordinarily friendly, willing to give seemingly all of his time to a stranger (the protagonist) to help him find his way.  The first finds Christianity at odds with Capitalism.   I don't know too may present commentators who make that point, though Nicholas Kristof has on occasion, such as in this piece.  The second doesn't emphasize the tension between Christianity and Capitalism but lives outside Capitalism's rhythms in the way he is able to fully immerse himself in the troubles of others.

The same day I finished reading The Testament, while channel surfing I stumbled onto Fiddler on the Roof and started to watch it in the middle, turning it off after the song, To life, To life, L'chaim, when Tevye learns from the local constable that there will be a pogrom in the village. Because I was already in the frame of mind to do so, I thought about how religion enters into this story.  It is different from how Grisham depicts it.  There is a very large cultural aspect.  Tevye leads his life according to the "Good Book" though he constantly interprets it to match his own way of doing things.  It affects the clothes he wears and how he goes about his work.  Much of this is  behavioral than rather than ethical.  Tevye's ethics stem from being "a mensch."   He treats everyone with respect, including the constable, and if he learns of someone else's need he tries to help, but does so in a way to find a quid pro quo, because that is the way to maintain balance.  Self-pride prevents people from taking charity or encourages an unhealthy dependency.

Tevye struggles, in a certain sense it is a very modern struggle, between maintaining the Jewish traditions and his daughters finding happiness by choosing whom they are to marry. Match making had been the tradition.  An important feature of the husband-to-be is his ability to earn a good living, so the family will live well and not know hunger.  The tradition is sensible.  Marriage for love is not. The elder three daughters each choose that.  Tevye is challenged to promote their happiness yet abide by the traditions.  With the first two daughters he comes to some accommodation but with the third he does not.  She elopes with a non-Jew, forbidden behavior for which there can be no compromise.   There is no such struggle in The Testament.  Because the characters are flat, they can be pure in their purpose. The religious ones are good, in an entirely pure way.

The Sholom Aleichem stories on which Fiddler was based were written more than 100 years ago.  The first copyright on The Testament is from 1999.  Neither is of our time.  The values that religion represents are different in them, but both treat religion from an individualistic perspective and neither turns religion into a crusade.  I don't know if 9/11 has made it harder for either of these approaches to prevail or if the continued poor performance of the economy has proved the correctness of Marx's insight about religion being the opiate of the masses.

For several years as a kid I went to Yiddische Schule on Saturdays and was taught Yiddish (of which I know very little now but I have a copy of Leo Rosten's book in my reading pile), folk songs, and Jewish history.  Some of this was simply to make the kids aware of their culture but some of it was deliberately there to contradict the history we were taught in the public schools.  I still remember a chapter title from our history book called The Horrible Crusades.  It was a lesson learned then, one that has stuck.

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