Monthly Archives: June 2011

One More More Thing

That last essay, about Peter Falk, was the hardest, saddest blog post I’ve ever had to write, and I blogged about Auschwitz. Why is that?

Columbo has been my favorite show as long as I can remember, and its namesake my favorite television character. I was a kid when I started watching Columbo. At some point, being Columbo was essentially my life goal: the blatant disregard for one’s physical appearance, the disrespect for fashion, wealth, and elitism, the somewhat amusing ideas about classical music, the gloriously dry wit, the keen observant eye (well, I have two eyes), and of course the way his genius has of taking you by surprise.

So that’s what I aspired to be. I wanted to be smart and I wanted nobody to expect it. I wanted to hide what intelligence I had and spring it on people. I wanted to have a slightly weird stooped walk and a casual attitude. I wanted to walk into a room and notice everything. Luckily nobody ever gave me a trench-coat or cigars.

Also, putting on a tie would be a bit of an inconvenience.

I actually am pretty observant, because of Columbo. I notice all sorts of little details, and though I usually tell people, “Oh, that’s because I read murder mysteries,” it’s really thanks to Columbo. It may turn out to be the case that Columbo’s powers of observation made me a better writer. And someone actually once told me she was afraid to speak without thinking when I was around because I always remember. I haven’t forgotten that.

Peter Falk has some kind of spark, for me. Is it what people call a “twinkle in the eye”? Anytime he appears on screen, the show, or film, gets better; the screen actually lights up; he cheers me up just by being there. I see Peter Falk and I smile without helping it, or thinking about it. This is true in The Princess Bride, and Murder by Death, and The Great Race, and, well, everything he’s been in. Not many actors are like that. Maggie Smith. Madeline Kahn. Maybe John Cusack. Maybe Michael Caine.

I’ve probably been watching Columbo for nearly a decade, nearly, that is to say, half my life (don’t look too closely at the math). Its combination of humor, cold logic, and ingenious writing is unmatched; its detective is the best to ever appear on a TV screen. But we talked about in the last blog post. This one’s saying, its combination of humor and logic were and are exactly what I want out of a good story. I loved that guy; I loved that show. The 13-year-old Brian wanted to be Lt. Columbo. He probably wanted a better car, and he didn’t like dogs that much, but otherwise it’s true.

Last year at Rice I taught a class called Reading and Writing Detective Fiction. We watched three detective stories on screen: Vertigo, House‘s “Three Stories,” and Columbo‘s “Candidate for Crime.” I added Columbo because the inverted detective story is fascinating, but also because I could sit in the back and slide into bliss.

That’s why that last essay was so hard to write. The detective fiction scholar enjoyed it but had a hard time. But the kid in me just had his hero die.

Of course, that’s overstated. My childhood hero hasn’t died; there are a dozen seasons of his exploits still around, and there are even some episodes I haven’t seen. Lieutenant Columbo will live on–he’ll just be off duty.

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Just One More Thing

Very possibly the best detective novel ever written is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry Petrovich, the eccentric investigator, is a relatively minor character, absent from most of the book, but he is instantly unforgettable: funny, off-topic, slightly distracted, until suddenly he launches into a white-hot monologue of ferocious eagerness, explaining to Raskolnikov exactly how he knows the latter is a murderer. Petrovich has all the savage playfulness of a genius toying with his opponent.

It’s natural to read Crime and Punishment and wish for more of its brilliantly weird detective and his riveting speeches. In the late 1960s a television writer named William Link read his Dostoevsky and had the same wish–so he drafted a TV movie featuring a police detective who dressed shabbily, spoke shabbily, and acted like a dunce, as part of an elaborate psychological game in which the murderer was mouse and the sleuth a sleek, silent, hungry cat.

After a test run episode with Bert Freed as the detective, executives decided to make the premise a full-blown show. They contacted Lee J. Cobb, a juror from 12 Angry Men; he was busy. They contacted Bing Crosby, of all people, but he turned the job down. So they contacted Peter Falk.

Peter Falk made Lieutenant Columbo. He invented Columbo’s mannerisms. He ad-libbed lines to surprise fellow actors. He ad-libbed elaborate physical comedy so that the murderers’ irritation at Columbo’s presence would look more real. And he pulled all of Columbo’s clothes out of his own closet. That battered old coat? Peter Falk’s. That funny look about his face? Falk had a glass eye; his eyes never looked in the same direction.

Young Lt. Columbo

Falk had help, of course. The writers of the show decided to pursue an innovative sub-genre of the typical murder mystery: the inverted detective story. At the beginning of the show, we watch the murder happen. We watch the killer lay his/her plans, create an alibi, rearrange the crime scene, plant false clues, and clean up the mess.

Then Columbo shows up.

Falk called Columbo an “ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.” The character was like that, because he acted more and more clueless as his brain worked harder and harder. The clues were like that, because Columbo didn’t point out clues; he asked questions. When he did reveal big leads, he did so directly to the murderer, and politely asked, “Can you help me figure out what this means?” The scenes were like that, because Columbo inserted the verbal/proverbial knife as he left, turning in the doorway and saying, “Oh, just one more thing…” The story was like that, because we knew the solution from the start. The fun was in watching the solution get found. The fun was in watching our brilliant detective circle his prey, slowly growing closer, playing the fool when he most smelt blood. The best episodes of Columbo–like “A Stitch in Crime” (with murderer Leonard Nimoy), “Try and Catch Me,” and most of all “A Friend in Deed” and the stunningly emotional “Forgotten Lady” with Janet Leigh–stand among the best detective stories we have.

Peter Falk was Columbo the way that Humphrey Bogart was Sam Spade, or the way James Stewart was Scottie in Vertigo. They’re the only detectives who compare, in television or film. Lieutenant Columbo is a detective as compelling and brilliant as Poirot, Marple, Spade, Dalgliesh, or (yes) Holmes, his only conceivable fault a lack of emotional depth compared to, say, Marlowe. But he wasn’t meant to be Marlowe; he was meant to be entertainment, more realistic than Sherlock, more modest than Hercule, more excitingly clever than anyone since, well, Porfiry Petrovich.

Peter Falk was a great deal else, too. He was a terrifying hit man in Murder, Inc., all the more fearsome because he would laugh right up to the moment he kills you. He tried to hold a family together as his wife descended into madness in the drama A Woman Under the Influence. He was a wickedly funny parody of Hammett and Chandler twice, in The Cheap Detective and Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (in which his character was “Sam Diamond”). And–the way most people my age remember Falk–he was the charming narrator of The Princess Bride.

Who wouldn't want this guy reading them bedtime stories?

All this came after a Hollywood executive told Falk, trying for roles at the very beginning of his career, that “for the same money I can get an actor with two eyes.” That must have hurt: he had also been rejected by the CIA on a similar excuse. Ultimately, it was a single breakthrough role–acquired after Falk had become a certified public accountant and worked for five years in a state budget office–that made him one of the great character actors of his time.

It’s often hard for actors to thrive when they’re typecast. Daniel Radcliffe may always be waffling, irritable Harry Potter; Joe Pesci will always sound like he’s some kind of mafia clown; Betty White has spent several years being the grandma with the foul mouth. Peter Falk became the rumpled, confused-seeming detective and inhabited the persona for decades, but somehow that was no burden on his artistry. Instead it seemed to help him rise to still-greater heights of creativity.

Nobody had done or been a Columbo before. Peter Falk roles were roles nobody else could play. Falk was given freedom to create his own best character, and he perfected it the way a band might perfect its style or a painter might work on technique. Columbo didn’t stagnate until the one-off TV movie specials in the 1990s; its star was too inventive, too excited by his role.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Lt. Columbo was a true original. Peter Falk was a true original. And when somebody on your television set invents a totally new archetype (riffing on Dostoevsky, but that was just the seed), invents a new sort of hero, set in a new mode of storytelling, that is an achievement worth talking about.

Beginning in 2007, Peter Falk suffered from severe dementia; by 2009, he could no longer remember what “Columbo” was. For the clever, improvisatory actor who created one of the most brilliantly quick-witted detectives in mystery literature, it was a cruelly inappropriate end. As its hero’s mind faded, the script to an episode titled “Columbo’s Last Case” was shelved. Alas: all Falk had wanted was just one more thing.

Peter Falk, 1927-2011

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The First-Sentence Test

In my review of Paul Murray’s marvelous novel Skippy Dies, I mention that it is the all-time high scorer on the “first-sentence test.” Maybe we should talk a little bit more about that test and how it works.

The first-sentence test is for novels and short fiction collections; for non-fiction other criteria are used. The crux of the problem is that when you pick up a novel by an author you have not yet read, there is very little way of knowing what writing style lies inside. Will you like it? Will you hate it? Is it flippant, grating, pretentious, or crude? The first-sentence test has a way of revealing the answer.

To see why, let’s break down my all-time top-scoring first sentence, from Skippy Dies.

“Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair.”

This works on a lot of different levels.

1. It mentions doughnuts. Okay, that’s not a real reason, but you’re thinking “admit it, Brian, you only like it because it mentions doughnuts,” so I wanted to deny that right at the start.

2. It drops you in mid-story with little pretension. There aren’t paragraphs explaining who Skippy and Ruprecht are or setting up the story; there’s no “So then they decided to have a doughnut-eating race.” The use of the phrase “one evening” imparts a “once upon a time” quality which excuses the author from having to dull us with exposition and allows him to get on with the story.

3. It suggests a casual narrative style. There are no elaborate phrases or blatant attempts to impress. There are no crap metaphors begging for attention (see below). The sentence is neither self-consciously too short nor self-consciously too long. Its length is perfectly judged, its authorial voice so simple, so unremarkable as to be miraculous. We discover with no fuss exactly what’s going on.

4. Although Skippy and Ruprecht have not been introduced to us, and although I usually think creating mysteries with a first sentence (who are these people?) is a cheap trick, we actually do know who these people are. They are the type of people who would have a doughnut-eating race. What more do we need?

5. This one is easy to miss: the sentence is daring. The title of the novel is Skippy Dies. And in the first sentence, in the first sentence, Skippy is already dying. That takes balls, people. It takes extraordinary courage. Think about it: imagine writing a novel and killing your main protagonist, indeed your title character, in the very first sentence. And then basing the whole novel on it. I think this, more than anything else, is what made my jaw drop and my heart flutter and my brain say “!!!!!” and my wallet open up and my hands carry the book out of the store.

Now, in contrast, let’s look at some more first sentences and what’s wrong or right with them.

“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.” (Franzen, The Corrections) Yeah, a sentence fragment. Worse, it’s a forced metaphor for weather, and not only is weather boring, but metaphors should feel natural and right. Worse, the next sentence is “You could feel it.” I actually felt personally offended. I wanted to shout, “No, I couldn’t, you solicitous prick!” Eight more sentence fragments follow, including “the nasal contention of a leaf blower,” and it makes me want to hurt somebody.

“London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth…” (Dickens, Bleak House) Bleak House begins with a whole page of sentence fragments. Unlike Franzen’s, though, Dickens’ do a great job setting the scene and telling us where, when, and why we are on the book’s first page. Dickens doesn’t try telling “you” what to feel and he doesn’t make up nonsensical metaphors about leaf blowers. Instead, at the bottom of the page, he writes an entire paragraph of variations on the word “fog.” It’s breathtaking.

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace

I love David Foster Wallace, but this is one of the most godawful first sentences in the history of literature. It comes from his unfinished and unedited but posthumously published anyway novel The Pale King, whose publishers had a hand in ordering the chapters. I desperately hope DFW would have deleted this abomination had he lived–it tries too hard. It screams “trying too hard.” Strained descriptors, strained metaphors, a preposterous list, all taking forever to read. Wallace had once criticized Updike for “so many modifiers…so much subordination,” and I have to imagine he would have rejected this sentence on the same grounds. It is no surprise to flip ahead to the second chapter, which starts on the very next page, and discover that Chapter 2 has a truly radiant first sentence in the deeply funny DFW tradition:

The Pale King, page 3 (Ch 2)

This one works because it’s funny and because it prepares you for Wallace’s style, which is observant of the strangest of details, the ones we would remember in real life.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

This one is working on several levels. The genealogical aspect subconsciously evokes epics, even the Bible; the parenthetical establishes who the narrator and reader are and where they fit into the story’s time-frame; the final line indicates that a big story is coming, and the “dark and tragic death” line reassures us that it is going to be a juicy read. Moreover the narrator has already assured us that he knows exactly how he’s going to tell the story. Marvelous.

“It was love at first sight.” The effect of the first line of Catch-22 is to make us want to read the second sentence, which is, “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” This is not at all what we’re expecting. It generates a mystery which needs solving, but not the “gosh, author, just get on with it” kind of mystery, as when novelists think it’s cool to spend a whole first chapter eschewing the hero’s name or what room they’ve just stepped into or why they’re holding a knife. No, it’s the sheer eccentric weirdness of Catch-22‘s first lines that makes the mystery of them an irresistible hook.

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” (Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera) There’s no mystery here–we find out “his” name in the next sentence–but instead a very peculiar insight into his mind, and the sense that there’s a very good story behind this odd connection. And the juxtaposition is kind of funny, I think.

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” (Delillo, Underworld) Halfway hopeful is how everybody describes Americans. And besides, who is the narrator supposed to be addressing? Why is he being so rude? Isn’t that rude or is it just me? And how does he know that “he speaks in my voice”? And who the hell is “he” anyways?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice) Come on, folks. This is genius. Most of all because what Austen really means is “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an eligible young woman wants nothing more than a single man in possession of a good fortune.”

So here are some lessons learned for first sentences.

1. Nothing fancy. Pretension is right out. The first sentence should be a good example of the kind of sentence the author writes, and reflect the general virtues of the authorial style. But it should not try too hard; it shouldn’t act like it knows it’s the first sentence. It need not draw attention to itself, because it’s already going to get all the attention it needs. The only time your opener should say “look at me” is if you’re Jane Austen and you’ve just thought of something wickedly brilliant.

2. No stupid mysteries. I don’t want to be asking “who the hell is he?” five seconds after starting a book. I don’t want to be dropped into a story mid-action without some kind of way to understand what’s happening.

3. A unique or intriguing thought is the best substitute for actual plot. If your first sentence doesn’t get the book going, doesn’t get the party started, it should at least serve as an appetizer for my brain.

More broadly, there is in fact only one criterion for a novel’s first sentence.

1. The first sentence should make you want to read the second sentence.

Sounds simple. Only, it’s not.

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What is a Comic Novel?

Literature has a ghetto, and it is the Comic Novel.

In today’s literary scene we have reached a point where a great many novels which have the audacity to be funny, not sarcastic or self-referent but genuinely funny, are assumed to be mere “entertainments” and consigned to their own little play-space off at the fringes of the contemporary canon. Even, indeed especially, novels of serious intent and ambition which are also funny receive one-way tickets off to the fringe. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read “wicked satires” or “madcap romps” or “darkly funny tours de force” and come away from the experience depressed, or at a minimum sobered. Sure, there can be humorous incidents. But even in tragic works, or “satires” notable for the cruelty with which they attack their heroes, it seems that an authorial sense of humor is enough to punch a ticket to the comic slum.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trend began in the 1970s and 1980s, when the predominant English-language literary trend was that of Pointless White Male Angst, and when literary theory was beginning to obsess over the deconstruction of text and the inability of authors to ever communicate with their readers. All of a sudden a gap opened up between authors who used humor as a weapon against social injustice (Catch-22, Vonnegut, Ellison in a way) and authors who used humor as a way of expressing deep sadness and meaninglessness. The former, especially Vonnegut, have been excluded from the highest literary circles. It’s simply not fashionable to take a philosophical stand in a novel, and it’s not at all fashionable to be funny.

David Foster Wallace, a writer who fought tooth-and-nail against attempts to throw him into the Comic Ghetto, points a finger at the unwillingness of novelists to take moral stances in new fiction: “Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that ‘serious’ literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life…. It would probably be better to call our own art’s culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. … [their instincts are] removed from what’s really important–motive, feeling, belief.”

One element of that “distance from real lived life” is humor. Wallace is the rare exception, and he was inspired by another exception, Thomas Pynchon; they struggled to create, in Wallace’s words, “a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction [which] was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How–for a writer today, even a talented writer today–to get up the guts to even try?”

So imagine my pleasure at reading a brand-new novel, a very funny novel indeed, which has the guts to try. Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, is for the most part a picaresque about a group of eccentric 14-year-olds in one of Ireland’s most prestigious Catholic schools, dealing with kid-hating priests, bullies, the girls’ school next door, and the ever-present temptation of a doughnut shop across the street. But make no mistake: Skippy Dies is not a comedy. The kids have to learn a lot more than the capital of Bolivia; they have to grapple with some of humanity’s deepest, most basic fears and quandaries. It’s a mark of Murray’s skill that I was genuinely surprised when Skippy, yes, died.

By the way, great cover.

One of the lessons of Skippy’s death is that many events in life don’t simply have “a cause” which we can blame on somebody or explain away. The plot initially unfolds as a seemingly endless series of stresses on Skippy’s life, many of them unexpected, none of them something we can point to and say, “Oh, that was the cause of his problems.” It’s all too easy to say, “he behaved that way because of problems at home,” one of the excuses Skippy’s teachers make here, or to suspect sexual abuse by the school’s priests, but Murray reminds us that life is never, ever that simple.

A fat science geek named Ruprecht, who can count Skippy as his only friend, has a lot to learn about grief and is plunged into crisis over his belief in the orderliness of the universe. He, too, crafts an explanation for Skippy’s death and, in a moving scene with the dead boy’s girlfriend, watches his theory, and his theory that the whole world can be easily explained as a sequence of theories, collapse in tatters.

A teacher named Howard (“the Coward”) learns that seeking something new is often an attempt to escape; another learns of the way that guilt encourages further temptation. A girl named Lori finds comfort in pain. There’s really a lot going on here, and the genius of the “comic novel” disguise is that some of the characters can discover morals to their stories without the reader getting a whiff of preachiness or cliche.

Another of the book’s pleasures is the natural, easy-flowing prose. There is no “distance from real lived life” here: the reassuring, refreshing element of Skippy Dies is that a lot of it sounds like it was written by somebody you know. And the plot juggles an at-first bewildering array of storylines of which sense is indeed eventually made (though I still disliked the bullies’ pill-selling subplot). Only a short, silly epilogue saves the ending from being distinctly un-comic: it is a letter to parents from the school’s new principal, a robotic man whose fuel is naked ambition and whose nickname is The Automator, explaining what has just happened and giddily proclaiming his humility upon taking his new job.

I didn’t expect a novel of ambition, or moral complexity, or emotional interest when I bought Skippy Dies. But it is all those things, maybe too ambitious as it tackles string theory and drugs but also a poignant look at loss and how people sort out the aftermath of a death (think about that word: after-math), and a reminder that, even in school, the truth is more complicated than we can see from one angle. Better still, Skippy Dies confirms that at least one writer actually remembers what it is like to be a student, rather than trying to make bogus cliched stuff up.

But as I said: I didn’t expect any of that when I bought the book. I bought the book because I have a little test I administer at the shop called the “first-sentence test.” It’s pretty simple: if the first sentence of a novel is good, I read the first page. If the first page is good, I put the book on my reading list. If the first sentence of the novel is bad, off it goes to the scrap heap.

Generally the test is a fairly reliable indicator of how much I will like a work. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has failed the first-page test a record four times, whereas novels as diverse as The Broom of the System, The Catcher in the Rye, A Visit from the Goon Squad (essay forthcoming), Catch-22, and The Brothers Karamazov are all high scorers on the first-sentence test and all works I love.

Skippy Dies is the all-time high scorer on the first-sentence test. It is No 1. I was so astonished I bought the book on the spot. Here is its first sentence:

“Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls out of his chair.”

After that, the next 660 pages were easy.

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Happy Father’s Day

Back in America, today is Father’s Day, for celebrating how great our dads are. If my dad’s having his way, he’ll probably spend Father’s Day reading a good history book, driving quickly on roads dangerous enough to frighten my mother, cooking burgers on the grill (charcoal not gas!), and watching a few episodes of the Red Green Show. Of course, if I had my way I’d be there.

But I can blog a thought at him: hey, Dad, one thing you’re right about that we don’t give you credit for is your sense of humor. Sure the puns are bad (or is the word we use “pun-gent”?), but if Mel Brooks and Airplane! taught us anything, it’s to keep going for the laughs. And, anyways, one of the most important things I can say I’ve learned from my parents is how important it is to have a good laugh, how important to approach life with a sense of humor, and especially that one should always maintain a sense of humor about oneself. We’re our own best material. That might seem an odd thing to say on Father’s Day, but…

You knew where that was going, didn’t you?

Have a great, funny Father’s Day. I’ll be back soon!

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Auschwitz-Birkenau

There must be a great many blog posts out there about visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not that it’s a trendy topic: the truth is, I suspect, that everybody who visits Auschwitz needs to talk about it afterward. I do. The trouble is we’re left speechless, not quite sure what can be said. Everything has been said already, and yet nothing has been said already. You can read all the blog posts you like about it, and believe those words to be true, and then when you’re actually there, you know, you know what it means to say that the words are true. Not before that.

Maybe I should talk about what surprised me about Auschwitz-Birkenau.

1. The first surprise was that Oswiecim, the Polish town which was translated in German as “Auschwitz,” is a regular, functioning mid-size town. The train does not pull up right into the camps, as I had somewhat naively feared. Opposite the station is a convenience store whose mascot is a happy frog; down the street, a large iron box has become some sort of “nightclub.” Right around the corner from the actual concentration camp is a home-improvement store, wooden playsets for children lining its front.

No, no, I didn't expect to see the Hot Spot Club in Oswiecim.

2. The second surprise is that the camp designated as Auschwitz looks–almost–nice. Whatever your imagination was suggesting, it was actually originally built as a Polish army garrison, and therefore is a neat series of modest multi-level brick buildings. Nothing about them suggests that they were at or near the lowest point in human history. Nothing about building 10, for example, would betray to you the fact that a German gynecologist practiced often-lethal sterilization methods on Jewish women upstairs. No, Auschwitz looks like the kind of place where they might film Hogan’s Heroes, not a tortureland for anyone who met the Nazis’ disfavor.

(Incidentally, pro tip: maybe the best building to go inside is the Czech Republic’s superb museum for Czech victims. Aside from dozens of biographical sketches of victims and their crimes [like buying an illegal newspaper], there is some superb artwork, including the haunting Lidice wall, named for a village literally destroyed by the Germans. And a well-placed mirror, no tricks or gimmicks, just a mirror, will make you recoil.)

3. I only felt physically sick once. It was in a small, underground bunker in Auschwitz, where postwar curators of the site painstakingly rebuilt the ovens. I’m not going to say anything else about that or post a photo. You know what the ovens were for.

4. Earlier, I said the Auschwitz buildings were “at or near the lowest point in human history.” It’s quibbling, to be sure, but “near” is the correct answer, for it is 2.2 kilometres to Birkenau. Birkenau is the extension (“Auschwitz II”) built by the Germans because the original Polish garrison simply was not designed for the mass extermination of thousands of people. The first death-traps did not have enough capacity.

When you think of Auschwitz, you are actually thinking of Birkenau. Auschwitz was a “concentration camp,” but Birkenau was, explicitly and urgently, a “death camp.” Birkenau is where the trains pulled directly into the camp, where the men and women were on opposite sides of the tracks, where four purpose-built gas chambers with attached incinerators worked around the clock, where (“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”) groups were herded into ramshackle wooden barracks with wooden shelves as bunks, where Josef Mengele carried out his experiments on twins and the deformed, where the prisoners dug their own sewage ditches, where expansions were still being planned when the Russians arrived. Even the name “Birkenau” fits the horror of the place: like Oswiecim, Brzezinka was a Polish village whose name was Germanicized and appropriated for the camp. But there was a twist: to create more space for their monster, the Germans bulldozed Brzezinka.

5. Somehow it was surprising to me that the sheer emptiness of Birkenau could be so powerful.

Rows of ruined wooden barracks have only chimneys left to prove their existence.

The emptiness, the void of the whole place, lets your eye scan the horizon and see just how huge the scope of Birkenau is. On the left-hand side as you enter is the camp for women, which by itself holds 27 different barracks, most of which are still standing and a few of which you can enter. To the right is the wasteland photographed above, the long-ago burn-down wooden barracks for men. At the end of the site, looking rather powerless, are the sunken piles of underground rubble which were once gas chambers and extermination rooms. Now they’re nothing more than heaps of brick.

It takes a few hours to walk around Auschwitz-Birkenau. It also takes imagination, because the sites have been almost totally kept as they were when the Russians arrived–no grotesque reconstructions, no visitor’s center with gigantic models, no video shows, no fake gas chambers, no audio guides. All this demonstrates great respect for the site, and demands great empathy from the visitor. It’s harder than you think, in light of the sixth surprise.

6. Auschwitz is strangely peaceful. Around the fringes of Birkenau, trees grow high; at the ruined gas chambers, one can hear a nearby stream. And the great surprise, for a city-dweller and someone with preconceived ideas of how gloomy a place this must be, is that everywhere, everywhere, birds are singing. They sing from the trees; they sing from the barbed-wire fences; they nest in the ruined buildings. Even standing inside the womens’ barracks, I was never alone, for birds were there, too, at home, singing. That, surely, will be what I remember most about Auschwitz: looking upon bunks which were little more than bowed planks, trying to imagine how many people would cram into each one, and hearing over my shoulder the call of the birds.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Maybe the lesson is that no matter what horrors humans may inflict on each other, nature will always find a way to heal. If only we were worthy of it.

.

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In Liverpool for the Music

Liverpool is a cool place. Back when it gave birth to the most important band of the 20th century, it was a working-class place where most of the population worked in the massive, ugly port. Smoke filled the skies, and indeed, a good bit of it remains on the now-black exterior walls of maybe the ugliest cathedral in Britain.

Bet they wish they had a do-over on this one.

But, all that said, Liverpool today is a very cool place. Its fortunes have transformed. The Albert Dock is now a fancy shopping center, with at least four museums and a whole gallery of overpriced bars. The city center is clean and pleasantly uninteresting; several blocks have become a massive pedestrianized shopping center; Bold Street teems with cafes and quirky shops, and Hope Street with elegant places for dinner (try HOST’s marvelous tandoori salmon); the Cavern Club, where the Beatles first played, was unwisely destroyed years ago but has been meticulously rebuilt and even hosts bands again.

Just outside my hotel’s front door was The Beatles Story, a pricey museum dedicated to multimedia presentations about the Fab Four. When I walked by for the first time, thirty or forty Chinese tourists were being herded in by their tour leaders. I resolved to skip it.

Truth was, I was in Liverpool for the music–but not the Beatles. (Though I did listen to Rubber Soul on the way up. God, what a perfect album. But you knew that already.) It was the weekend of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s season finale, featuring not a single tune I’d heard before. The RLPO have recently surged onto the global music scene, from an already quite respectable position as one of the top orchestras in the world to still greater heights.

A lot of folks credit their charismatic 34-year-old conductor, Vasily Petrenko. The young Russian puts together performances of great polish and excitement, and shows on CD that he is a mature interpreter of the classics, too. I saw him do Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony live in London and called it “pants-browningly terrifying.” I consider his recordings of the Shostakovich Tenth and Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead to be the standards by which others are judged.

Here’s the thing that makes him really interesting, though. Liverpool freaking loves him. The whole city. Everybody. They sell his posters at the Albert Dock. He goes to Liverpool football matches. The Lord Mayor made him an “Honorary Scouser.” When he signed CDs after the concert, he was drinking a pint of local beer. He was seemingly everywhere in Liverpool’s “European Capital of Culture” festival in 2008. Oh, and one time his very young son stole his baton, so he led a concert using a pencil. Little wonder the RLPO’s executives were so eager to hire him in 2004 that they actually stalked him around Europe until they got an opportunity to make their pitch.

But back to the music: the concert opened with Edward Elgar’s “Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands,” a rather silly piece I’d never heard. For the most part, the chorus sings German poems and the orchestra plays oompah music that sounds like a wicked parody of Bavaria. But it all builds up, of course, to a smashing finale.

The concerto was for, of all things, organ: Alexandre Guilmant’s Symphony No 1 for organ and orchestra. Guilmant’s work was even more shameless than Elgar’s: basically, the organ would play a big, terrifying tune, and then the orchestra would echo it, and repeat for twenty minutes. You didn’t need to read the program to know Guilmant was an organ soloist. The most amusing moments were probably the slow movement, in which the organ plays a very languid fugue which the orchestra keeps interrupting in an attempt to add prettiness, and the very ending of the piece, when a spontaneous march erupts and everybody cheers at the finish line. Slightly spherical organist Ian Lacey had a blast playing the piece, and so did we.

Elgar’s Second Symphony doesn’t do “cheers at the finish line.” True, there is a lot of fairly dull one-two stamping about in parts–Elgar’s trademark rhythm is what I call “waddling”–but the middle of the first movement has a passage of sublime creepiness, weird slithery music that sounds like it was snuck into the draft by space aliens. The funeral march and downright ‘modernist’ scherzo made me begin to feel slightly bad about underestimating Elgar. The giant-mustachioed Victorian eminence had feelings, after all, and in the Second Symphony he wrote some music that (a) didn’t sound like Pomp and Circumstance, and (b) nobody else could have written.

Afterward, I bought a CD–Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Isle of the Dead–and Vasily Petrenko signed it. He also told me he’s visiting America this summer (darn!) but after that will be busy with his day jobs (night jobs?) in Liverpool and Oslo. Oh well. You can see his Tchaikovsky in glorious HD on YouTube. Or you can check out this picture of Petrenko père et fils et bière:

Is that you, Sorin Lupascu?

Of course, Liverpool is an extremely musical city, and musics of all styles: classical, rock, ridiculous. Oh, I haven’t mentioned the Scousers’ contribution to silly songs? It’s an instrument, not a band or a Russian import, and it’s called the “loophonium,” because, well, it’s loopy. Basically, take a euphonium (a more portable tuba) and add, um, a toilet. And strings. And then play the euphonium toilet or pluck the strings.

Also, be sure to paint your loophonium. Hey Rice, wouldn't the MOB love one of these?

The loophonium is housed in the Walker Art Gallery, which also has a sound sample of the instrument actually playing an actual song. All I will say is that it sounds exactly the way you think it would sound. Also, when I pushed the button and the recording played, everyone in the gallery giggled like idiots. But hey, that’s what art is for!

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