Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Better novel than Anna Karenina

From LI, 2004

We would never have read La Regenta or heard of it if we didn’t have a habit of trolling the aisles of libraries, our shoulders hunched up like that of an old crow, dreamily pulling tomes off the shelf and looking at first paragraphs, blurbs, pictures of authors, etc. etc. Years ago, when we came upon La Regenta, we were in the mood for a long 19th century novel. At that time, believe it or not, we were living in utter poverty (gasp!), renting a room for a pittance from our friend H. That La Regenta was a long novel was all the reason we needed to check it out and take it home. We have a lovely memory of reading the book in great big gulps: a reel of reading, a continuum, a glide down a slide. We immediately grouped the heroine, Ana Ozores, with Nana in terms of overpowering sexiness. But Clarin, unlike Zola, was not in the habit of drooling over his heroine. In fact, Anna is quite intelligent; Nana merely has the intelligence God would have given to any more than usually shrewd member of the 19th century demi-monde. Purge the odor of sex around Nana, and you have an operator, a nineteenth century capitalist of her own extraordinary pussy, whose vital instincts have merged with the utilitarian calculus preferred by the laissez faire economists of the time in much the way any captain of industry’s did. Her industry was orgasm, Carnegie’s was steel. Same diff.

We recently decided to treat ourselves to the novel once again.

The edition we are reading was put out by University of Georgia Press. Warning: it carries a completely bogus introduction by the translator, John Rutherford. The innocent reader, stumbling into the intro, might flee from the book entirely to escape the babbitry in which Rutherford so abounds. After congratulating Leopoldo Alas, aka Clarin, for having anticipated Freud (it was the fashion, back in the sixties and seventies, to take anything anyone said about sex before Freud to be valuable insofar as it anticipated Freud, or quaint insofar as it disagreed with him – Freud being to sex what Edison was to illumination), Rutherford reaches the very zenith of platitudes with the following sentence: ‘But thanks to its universal themes, psychological insight and technical boldness, it [the novel] has proved itself to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women.’

Oh, what bliss, to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women! The heart sings like a robin… A poisoned robin.

Too much of that kind of thing makes one wonder if the translation is going to be any good. Ignorant of Spanish, we can’t vouch for its accuracy – but it achieves a consistent tone well above the introduction’s heady sampling of Rutherfordism. And there aren’t big mistakes in the English – a state of affairs that is rare, nowadays. It is amazing, the carelessness of publishers who publish translations. This is a subject we have had plenty of reviewing experience of. Ça suffit…

We are happy to note that we still hold to our original judgment, when we finished the novel way back in the dreamtime: La Regenta kicks Anna Karenina’s ass.

The only way to justify this would be to go through the novel at much greater length than we have time for. Instead, let’s excerpt a paragraph.

Here’s the context. Ana Ozores is the daughter of an Italian dressmaker and a petty liberal aristocrat. The seamstress dies, the petty liberal aristocrat gives himself over to the struggle to remake Spain, and then retires in disgust in a small bungalow, having shot his inherited wad. On his death, Ana, who is a scrawny teen in the throes of her first menses, is taken in by her two spinster aunts in Vetusta, a backwards cathedral town. Her aunts intentionally “plump” Anna up – and she cooperates, realizing that her aunts want to make her “eligible.” Since she doesn’t have money, her ‘eligibility’ will have to consist of her blue blood – mention of the dressmaker is under strict rature – and her beauty, which in due time blossoms. Anna is one of those 19th century beauties – poitrine a la Nana, haunches like J-Lo. That Ana has a knack for writing is discovered by the aunts, and firmly suppressed as a vice. And so the aunts put her on the market, so to speak. They catch a millionaire, an ‘American’ who has returned to Vetusta and wants to buy the biggest house and the town beauty. Ana refuses. She is being courted, at this time, by an older man, Don Victor Quintanas. This is the description of her aunt Anuncia’s receiving Ana’s refusal of the millionaire. The scene is set in the dining room. There’s a fire in the fire place – otherwise, the room, one presumes, is not illuminated. The aunts have their little ways to save money:

“But Dona Anuncia needed no more to let loose the basilisk of fury which she carried in her bowels. Her shadow, amidst all the other shadows on the wall, at times resembled that of a gigantic witch; at other times, multiplied by the flickering flames and the old woman’s jerks and contortions, it represented all hell let loose. There were moments when Dona Anuncia’s shadow had three heads on the wall and three or four others on the ceiling, and it seemed that screams and shrieks were coming from all of them, so strident were her vociferations.”

Obviously, Alas is fusing, here, a memory of Goya’s Caprichios and a motif out of European folklore to create this scene – but how brilliantly it succeeds! LI has found that arguments are extremely hard to depict in fiction. As any rookie knows, modifications of “said’ are always rather iffy – yelled, vociferated, sarcastically observed, shrieked, cried – the lexicon is there, but the effects fall short of the intensity one wishes to convey, as though one were playing the keys of a piano in which the wires had been cut. The shadow play, here, supplies a context that does everything: merges the economics of marriage to a primal scene of cannibalism; caps the whole extended metaphor of plumping Ana up – a metaphor that creates, on one end, sympathy for a woman who is, after all, simply eating, and on the other end, transforms the cooks into monsters; and finally, it gives us a sense of just how close Anna is to that soap bubble film separating perception from hallucination. This quality is at the heart of her poetic talent. It is also at the heart of her downfall.

We could go on…

Just one other thing. We’ve mentioned this before – in fact, one of our first posts, back in 01, was about this. The relation between time and suspense in novels has never really been spelled out to our satisfaction. A novel in which a man is depicted borrowing money has installed a timer in its code – the timer is the debt. Time will be measured by the debt coming due. Time spatializes itself in the actions of the indebted man – the axe he finds to get rid of the pawnbroker from whom he has borrowed sums, the marriage he intends with the rich merchant’s daughter, etc., etc. There are all sorts of timers in the novel’s code. Here we see metaphor acting as a timer – the plumping out process has to end, for one thing – Anna can’t become too fat. She has to achieve a healthy avoidupois. For another, since this is a plumping up, the timer is running on the aunts. Eventually, they have to make good on their side of the metaphor – they have to become the monsters that plump up humans, that feed on human flesh. It is an agricultural metaphor, indicating an agricultural original sin – the slaughtering of the fed beast. Since feeding is, after all, a gift, one of the great founding gifts of society, to feed and then to slaughter is a contradiction that sets in motion a whole exculpatory ethic.

We could go on…

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

harvey golub, welfare queen

On 10 November, 2008, American Express suddenly filed the papers to become a bank holding company. Why? Well, American Express was feeling – as corporations sometimes feel - a bit down. A bit like it was going to collapse. A bit like enjoying extraordinary loans from the American government.

The Fed obliged. The Fed’s rules about loans were a bit different from American Express’s. American Express’s Daily Periodic Rate can be up to 15.9 percent. The Fed’s for its Commercial Paper Funding Facility and its Term Asset Backed Funding Facility was 1 percent or below. The FDIC did its part and extended something called the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. American Express generously decided to save itself; whereas its customers, in the situation that American Express found itself in, would have their cards yanked or its interest rates adjusted upwards, these are evidently the rules in the microsphere for micropeople. The rules in the stratosphere for stratopeople are different. It is thus that AXP became a big welfare entity overnment that it had helped stock, over the years, with bribed and venal officeholders – like the rest of corporate America. AXP weathered the storm triumphantly, with the help of little over 10 to 15 billion dollars from Uncle Sam.

Are we happy about this or what?

Which is the background against which to read the plutocrat’s lament by former American Express CEO Harvey Golub, whose protest against the idea of raising tax rates on the successful – and who can argue with success when it diverts such large sums of money from the Government for the purposes of peculation and hypertrophied CEO compensation packages? – has received much play among the peculators and exploiters

Golub is rather an expert in the field of hypertrophied compensation packages – appointed CEO of AIG after it had become another welfare queen, he left in a huff because the Government in a cosmetic move to assure the micropeople that it was democratic and populist to save a fancypants bucket shop from extinction put a limit on said compensations. This contrasts with how he left American Express in 2000. Having presided over the company during the fat nineties, when every CEO was king (while, surprisingly, every king CEO was raking in bucks from companies that were simply averaging what other companies in their sector earned – almost as if their own personal god-king decisions were not the deciding factor in the prosperity of the enterprises they were picking the fat bits from), Golub left in 2000 with this:

The American Express Company gave Harvey Golub, its chairman and chief executive, options on 750,000 shares of stock last March, according to a proxy statement filed last week that valued the ''special award'' at $30.9 million. The options raised Mr. Golub's total pay to about $52 million. He got an additional $38 million from exercising other options the company had granted.
A company spokesman said the options rewarded Mr. Golub for a job well done and gave him ''an incentive to stay during the transition.'' Mr. Golub, 60, will give up his job as chief executive to Kenneth I. Chenault, the president, in April 2001, and his chairman's post a year later. Mr. Chenault, 48, received options worth $16.5 million plus stock worth $4.9 million, raising his 1999 pay to about $32 million.

Then, inevitably, this happened in 2001:

“American Express surprised investors yesterday by saying that it would eliminate as many as 5,000 jobs and take more than $1 billion in charges against its earnings by the end of this quarter.

The job cuts would be the biggest that American Express has taken in about a decade and would come on top of the 1,600 jobs American Express has already eliminated this year. They are part of a reorganization of the company's various financial services businesses and will help offset the heavy losses the company sustained from its aggressive investing in junk bonds.

In announcing the changes several days before the company is scheduled to report its second-quarter earnings, the chief executive, Kenneth I. Chenault, admitted that the company had misjudged the risks in its $3.5 billion portfolio of junk bonds. He repeatedly told analysts and investors yesterday that the company would take a more conservative approach to investing the money it takes in from selling insurance and investment products.

Mr. Chenault, who succeeded Harvey Golub as chief executive in January, said the costs of the changes it is making would reduce pretax earnings for the quarter that ended in June by $826 million. In addition, the cost of cutting about 5 percent of its jobs will reduce this quarter's pretax profit $310 million to $370 million, he said.

The losses are far larger than analysts had expected. They follow two earlier write-downs of the company's investment portfolio in the last year and some investors sounded angry about the latest disappointment. All told, the company has marked down the value of its junk bonds and some other bonds that it cannot resell by more than $1.1 billion, or about one-fourth of their original value.” NYT 7/19/2001

Evidently, Mr. Golub has that sixth sense that tells him when to head for the door with the family silver. On Wall Street, this makes you a sage. So of course, his screed on the taxes he pays was full of the kind of thing that passes for Conventional Wisdom among the plutocrats and the political elite. Read the tidbits!

“Governments have an obligation to spend our tax money on programs that work. They fail at this fundamental task. Do we really need dozens of retraining programs with no measure of performance or results? Do we really need to spend money on solar panels, windmills and battery-operated cars when we have ample energy supplies in this country? Do we really need all the regulations that put an estimated $2 trillion burden on our economy by raising the price of things we buy? Do we really need subsidies for domestic sugar farmers and ethanol producers?
Why do we require that public projects pay above-market labor costs? Why do we spend billions on trains that no one will ride? Why do we keep post offices open in places no one lives? Why do we subsidize small airports in communities close to larger ones? Why do we pay government workers above-market rates and outlandish benefits? Do we really need an energy department or an education department at all?”

Good questions! I especially like the one about the overcompensated laborers on public projects. From the junk bond king, this was the kind of gall that is almost sweet - it shows not so much hubris as a deepfried stupidity, a selfishness that builds a monument in the soul like a giant pearl, except made out of the material you find in your lower gut.

But I notice that he did not ask: do we really need a Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, a Commercial Paper Funding Facility, or a Term Asset Backed Funding Facility at all? Because after all, a man doesn’t question the things that saved his ass. They simply recede into the background of the gated community, to be used next time the predators lose massive amounts of money.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mockingbird politics

A. and I went camping this weekend, and I had an (admittedly drunken) talk with one of my bros., who is getting more conservative as he grows older. Sadly, he was the one who was most enthusiastic about Obama when he came in – and he is exactly the type Obama lost with his ‘compromises’ and inability to recognize the cratering of middle class American lifestyles we’ve been witnessing. He’s looking for that fabled beast, the reasonable republican.

Anyway, to my insistence on the fact that political talk shouldn’t be hemmed in by the “we can’t afford it” mantra when in fact the ‘we’ is the bottom 80 percent who owns 25 percent of the wealth, while the “we’ in the top 20 percent, who owns 75 percent of the wealth, is rich as fuck and can definitely afford it, he made a very wise and so far unbeatable reply: “I’ve heard this over and over, but the cost for the social programs don’t come out of the rich. The rich always win. So in the end, they come out of me.”

This is true. And I think it explains much of the vile politics of the Bush-Obama era. You cannot run a New Deal social insurance system while at the same time encouraging a pre-New Deal division of wealth. It just doesn’t work. The reason the mantra of the rich against tax increases works is because, in reality, everybody out there knows that the tax increase, while it might hit the wage class, will spare the wealthy. Meanwhile, the government does all it can to ‘de-regulate” and “privatize”, adding further costs to the wage class and causing streams of money to rise like manna towards the bloodsuckers. Obama’s disastrous administration is simply the logical result of a welfare state that has evolved into a welfare for the rich state. It is getting worse in this “crisis”, not better. It is the first economic crisis, perhaps, since 1848 in which there is no “left” flank – not a single powerful organization or party. Just right flanks, socialist parties adopting Austrian economics, and the like.

According to the polls, the group that Obama has pissed off the least, in the last year, is liberal Democrats. Which does make me wonder why these people consider themselves liberal. I imagine that tattered word now covers a sort of fan base – it isn’t really a political viewpoint at all, but more of a warm feeling towards certain celebrity figures.

At least for people like me, with no stake in the system and no hope for change, this is the moronic inferno of our mockingbird dreams. We mock, because we can’t act.


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