The Free World is a marvelous first novel by David Bezmozgis, who wrote Natasha, and Other Stories, which was also excellent. In this book, he relates the fortunes over a period of about six months of a family of Soviet Immigrant Jews, stuck in Rome, a common way station in the 1970s and 80s for people granted permission to leave the USSR. That was the period of massive out-migration of Jews from the USSR: many went to Israel, by far the easiest destination point, but many more went to the USA, where I met them daily while I lived near to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. At times, in some places, only Russian was heard spoken. The family in this book is destined for Toronto, Canada, where the author grew up.
The story is book-ended by death: in the beginning, the father, an aging veteran of the Great Patriotic War (against the Nazis, in case you don’t know the lingo) and a Communist loyalist, reminisces over his brother, killed at the front. It closes with his death, and the letter he received announcing the death of his brother. In between, Bezmozgis turns his precise and unsentimental eye on the difficult process of adaptation for the family in transit. Adapting to Rome, to an uncertain future, to an ad hoc life among a community uprooted, and to the past that dogs them.
For me, the father is the most interesting character, a Latvian who welcomed the Stalinist invasion and annexation to the USSR during WWII, a party official who knows “there were some mistakes…” but who reveals why so many people would tolerate those “mistakes,” a few million dead innocents. He grew up at a time when people thought the utopian schemes of political scientists were actually taking genuine form, when there was a right and wrong side of History. He and his brother were so sure of their side, that they stood by while their cousin, a Zionist with no interest in revolution, was deported to Siberia as a suspect element when Latvia was annexed. Even being nearly shot by a brutal NKVD agent, for no reason at all, doesn’t shake his loyalty.
Now, in Rome, on his way to the triumphant, capitalist West, he watches with disdain and some despair as he hears people around him speaking Yiddish, embracing the shtetl ways of his parents, trying to revive all those old customs he was so happy to abandon. At one point, at a school program, his eyes like mine shafts, he endures the sight of his grandchildren singing Hebrew songs on a stage. Two generations of social progress being reversed before his eyes.
The characters in this book are all intelligent, which is to say, they think as people really do, rather than as characters do. They all struggle to make plans, make sense, to find a way forward, and nobody has the answers, nobody is all one way or the other – they are complex. And like every other Russian novel, it seems, women are treated rather badly all around, by the old line Party man, or by the new opportunists.
Although I was fascinated by the father figure, it is Alec, a smart-alec, unserious fellow who is the main character. Like everyone else, he is dealing with the past in this novel that is neither about the past nor the future, but that thin line between them. The fact that it takes place in The Eternal City is an additional irony. Alec would be an endearing fellow – he’s smart, funny, resourceful, and open-minded – but he is also a cad. He can’t help it. He just doesn’t want to let go of his past, doesn’t want to admit he is an adult and must act like one. So much easier to pretend he’s still thumbing his nose at the stupid ways of the bone-headed society he’s escaping. He learns the hard way, too late, and we never know just exactly how he will turn out.
As the child of parents who grew up in the USA, and of a father whose parents were completely American and assimilated, I found Alec’s father’s irritation with sociocultural regression amusing. At any family gathering, there’s always a story about a distant cousin, a brother-in-law of a nephew, etc. etc. who has thrown off the restrictive coil of American consumerism to return to the great freedom of religious orthodoxy. The beards, the clothes, the huge family, the religious fundamentalism… I guess it’s like ex-hippies who raise kids that become disciples of Ayn Rand.
Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp,
The throne of nations fallen; obscured in dust;
Even yet majestical: the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft, upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crushed columns, rifted moles,
Fanes rolled on fanes, and tombs on buried tombs.
- Deep lies in dust the Theban obelisk,
Immense along the waste:
John Dyer, The Ruins of Rome, 1740,
Some notes on the sublime, ruins, and romanticism.
The only gothic church in Rome is Santa Maria sopra Minerva, so called because it was erected on top of an ancient Roman temple of the goddess Minerva. In the plaza in front, there is a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk created by the great baroque artist, Bernini. Why is it carrying an obelisk?
1999 marked the 500th anniversary of the initial publication of Hypnerototmachia Poliphili and also marked the first complete English translation of the work, in which this woodcut features. It’s not surprising that Bernini would have been influenced by the book – every other educated European post-1499 was.
The publication of the original book is itself a landmark event, producing one of the most sought after pieces of icunabula, examples of the infancy of book printing, from the Latin for swaddling clothes. It was printed by Aldus in Venice, and integrated the woodcut illustrations with the text, which itself was often displayed in novel configurations, e.g. pyramidal layouts on the page.
The text itself is written in Italian, despite the author’s preoccupation with the culture of antiquity – such humanists usually wrote their scholarly stuff in Latin. But this is no scholarly text, and the author was no ivory tower intellectual. He was a priest of no good repute and the language, according to the translator’s introduction, is arcane, filled with bizarre neologisms, and with words that even educated readers of the day would have found bewildering.
Its title translates roughly as The strife of love in a dream, and it seems like an extended wet dream of an overheated imagination. Whether the erotic longing is for a woman or for architecture is not always clear – at least not as far as I have read so far. No doubt as I read further in this antique stream of consciousness but that associations with Bomarzo will be present.
In All About Eve, another female screen icon, Bette Davis, says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Not a bad warning for those who decide to watch Elizabeth Taylor in The Driver’s Seat! (1974, aka Identikit) This movie is, well, awful…but you may find it interesting.
I am not of the aesthetic school that says, “Ooh, it’s so bad, it’s good!” No, bad is bad, and good is good, but when the blogger at Swiftly Tilting Planet, who shares my taste for French realist novels and film noir, commented on my post about Butterfield 8 that I might want to see it – he didn’t say it was good – I decided to take a look. What kept me watching? Was it seeing the great Liz playing a ridiculous role? No – the film is weird. Repeat, WEIRD!
The plot is absurd: an unhinged woman leaves her home in northern Europe to go to Rome, looking for a man who is “her type.” At the end, or if we read the DVD notes, we learn that her type is the murderous type, with her as the victim. No wonder she’s always asking, “Why is everyone afraid of me?”
The dialog is absurd: Men seem to want to have sex with Lise (Taylor). She, however, will have none of it. “I’m not interested in sex. I have no time for sex! You won’t be having sex with me!”
Ah, but the weirdness pulls it through. Lise throws a fit in a clothing store when the salesgirl tells her the fabric of the dress she is trying is “stain resistant.” Infuriated, she shouts, “Do I look like someone who will get stains on her dress?” Andy Warhol, who had no need for fifteen minutes of fame, has a bit part as an Italian nobleman encountered at the airport. Is he her type? Hmmm…maybe. She flashes her legs, and more, to come on to a good looking mechanic who then takes her for a ride, for sex, he thinks, but she fights him off, wheezing as if she’s having an asthma attack. (Oh yeah, this happens after she takes refuge from the chaos in the street caused by a terrorist assasination of a visiting Arab dignitary…) And then there are those faces, starting with the housekeeper who breaks out into raucous laughter as she leaves for her Roman holiday: “Those clothes! You look like you’re dressed for the circus!”
Special note goes to the weird cum comic effect produced by Ian Bannen who tries to hook up with Lise as soon as he sees her in the next seat on the plane. He even attacks her neck with smooches after just meeting. After all, he’s on a macro-biotic diet, and he needs to have one orgasm a day. He repeats this imperative later as they are walking in the Borghese Gardens in Rome, but she will have none of it. “But what will I do?” he wails.
The film intercuts the police investigation of her murder – she eventually finds an obliging man who is her type – with the earlier events. Why does she want to die? Too many stains on her dress? Blood, semen? Her lover-murderer turns out to be a fellow she met on the plane – he tried to get away, but she drew him in irresistably – who is the sickly nephew of the dotty English Jehovah’s Witness she goes shopping with in Rome after sharing a taxi with her…another fortunitous plot twist.
Lise throws a fit and fixes her eyes
A nice old lady at the airport asks for help choosing a book: Which one has more S&M? Then Lise get’s searched.
Almost sci-fi – they board the plane to Rome.
“You look like Little Red Riding Hood, with that grin!” Still, a guy’s gotta try.
The billing was, I think, “With the cooperation of Andy Warhol.”
Two dotty ladies, one a Jehovah’s Witness with a psycho nephew, the other a psycho looking for a psycho lover. Eventually, they get together, and she gives him strict instructions on how to please her.
The police mumble, look chic, and beat up witnesses in modernist interrogation rooms. Later, the cops and the killer gather where the body was found to share a Blowup – Antonioni moment. There’s nothing there!
If you noticed that the images are of poor quality, it’s because the DVD was a mediocre digital transfer of the godawful original.