Tag Archives: excerpts

Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

East Berlin, August 1990. Image by Sludge G (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)

 

This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

* * *

Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before. Read more…

King-Killers in America (and the American Who Avenged the King)

Cromwell before the Coffin of Charles I, Paul Delaroche, 1849. Via 
Wikiart.

Michael Walsh & Don Jordan | The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History | Pegasus Books | August 2016 | 26 minutes (6,559 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The King’s Revenge, by Michael Walsh and Don Jordan. The story takes place in the wake of the English Civil War, fought between the Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”), who favored limitations on the king’s power and had the support of radical Protestant religious minorities (such as Puritans), and the Royalists (“Cavaliers”), who were loyal to the throne and were mostly members of the Church of England.  In 1649, the victorious Roundheads tried and executed the king, Charles I. After the coronation of his son Charles II in 1661, known as the Great Restoration, Charles launched a global manhunt for the 59 judges who signed his father’s death warrant, as well as the court officials who tried the case, collectively known as the “regicides.”

Many of the regicides fled to other countries, and below we found out what happened to those who fled to America, as well as to those were pursued by an American in Europe. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

If what he had done against the King were to be done again, he would do it again.

The spring of 1661 was significant not only for the crowning of the king. Hitherto Charles had paid little attention to the capture of regicides abroad, but that was about to change. As carpenters sweated over the erection of those magnificent coronation arches with their dual themes of royal triumph and revenge, Charles unleashed his bloodhounds in America and Europe. Two royalists set out from Boston to lead a hunt across New England for Whalley and Goffe, and the most ruthless operator in the king’s service was drafted in to spearhead a search across Europe for Ludlow and the other nineteen regicides who had escaped in 1660.

The American manhunt was launched on May 6 by John Endecott, governor of Massachusetts. Endecott had received an arrest order from the king which, dispensing with flowery courtesies, had been brutally curt:

Trusty and well-beloved,

We greet you well. We being given to understand that Colonel Whalley and Colonel Goffe, who stand here convicted for the execrable murder of our Royal Father, of glorious memory, are lately arrived at New England, where they hope to shroud themselves securely from the justice of our laws; our will and pleasure is, and we do hereby expressly require and command you forthwith upon the receipt of these our letters, to cause both the said persons to be apprehended, and with the first opportunity sent over hither under a strict care, to receive according to their demerits. We are confident of your readiness and diligence to perform your duty; and so bid you farewell.

Read more…

Becoming One of the World’s 65 Million Refugees

Refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station, September 2015. Via 
Wikimedia Commons.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson | Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis | The New Press | September 2016 | 20 minutes (5,452 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Cast Away, by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

This war is none of my business.

Majid Hussain didn’t know who would turn up on his doorstep first: Colonel Gaddafi’s foot soldiers following orders to purge Libya of its migrant workforce, or vengeful rebels wielding Kalashnikovs and the conviction that everyone with black skin deserved to be lynched.

For months the Nigerian teenager had watched on television in Tripoli as rebels not much older than himself stormed through the desert in their cheap sunglasses and mismatching camouflage, and it had seemed inconceivable that this shabby army of the disaffected could pose a threat to Muammar Gaddafi’s calm and ordered capital. He had heard rumours that all Africans from south of the Sahara were at risk of attack from rebels seeking mass punishment for the few who had colluded with the regime – but surely these were just rumours? Every day Majid still went to work and returned home every evening to his reliable air-conditioning and his satellite TV. The rebellion had remained remote from his life, and he wanted it to stay that way.

This war is none of my business, he thought. I have already seen my own country torn apart by old hatreds – I don’t need to see that again.

Majid and his housemate Ali had laughed off reports on CNN and the BBC about fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli, and they didn’t want to believe the news that Gaddafi was bombing civilians in Benghazi. It was all Western propaganda, the two Nigerians convinced each other. Even when a spokesman for Gaddafi warned on public radio that they would flood Europe with migrants if there was any Western military action, the young men remained unconcerned. Read more…

A Stranger in the World: The Memoir of a Musician on Tour

Vladimir Lenin and Lev Tolstoy on graffiti. Kharkov, Ukraine, 2008. Via
Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Nicolay | The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar | July 2016 | 25 minutes (6,916 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Humorless Ladies of Border Control, by Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist in The Hold Steady. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

You don’t travel for comfort; you travel to justify the daily discomfort, … the nagging doubt, sadness, weariness, the sense of being a stranger in a world.

Our roommate on the sleeper train from L’viv to Kyiv was a stocky, ham-fisted forty-five-year-old veterinarian. A friend of his, he told us, had a visa to America in the 1980s, but he got caught stealing from the grain quota and now can’t go to America ever. He had conspiracy theories and opinions he was eager to share: they didn’t kill bin Laden, it could have been “any tall guy with a beard”—for that matter, I, Franz, look a little like bin Laden, don’t I? And we haven’t seen that much of Michelle Obama recently, have we? If there’s not a trumpet, it’s not jazz. Vitamin C doesn’t work, all you need is raspberry tea with lemon and the love of a good woman. Everyone’s been there— first beer, first guitar, first girl.

He stripped down to what would once have been called his BVDs, nearly obscured by his hairless belly, and snored all night. When we awoke, he was gone, replaced by an older man with a lined face and Clint Eastwood stolidity. “He has the saddest face I’ve ever seen,” Maria said. He slept first, facedown and fully clothed; then, when I returned from the bathroom, he was sitting upright, bag beside him, staring out the window. He never said a word.

I was a musician then, often traveling alone, sometimes with my new wife, Maria. I hadn’t always traveled alone: for years I had been a member of the kind of bands who traveled in marauding, roving packs, like “Kerouac and Genghis Khan,” as the songwriter Loudon Wainwright once put it. First there was the nine-piece circus-punk orchestra World / Inferno Friendship Society, a monument to pyrrhic, self-defeating romanticism and preemptive nostalgia that still haunts me like a family lost in a war. But I had ambitions, and World / Inferno had “underground phenomenon” baked into the concept. So I jumped to a rising neo–classic rock band called the Hold Steady, which became, for a few years, one of the biggest bands in what is, for lack of a term of representation rather than marketing, called “indie rock.” We opened for the Rolling Stones and played the big festivals and bigger television shows. Our victory-lap touring constituted an almost audible sigh of relief that we’d finally arrived— we’d never have to work a day job again. Read more…

On Female Friendship and the Sisters We Choose for Ourselves

(Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

Chloe Caldwell | I’ll Tell You In PersonCoffee House Press | October 2016 | 19 minutes (4,768 words)

“Do you get in bed and cuddle with Chloe in the mornings?” It was an early evening in spring, and Bobbi and I were in the kitchen, standing across from each other at the counter. We’d just finished eating pizza and salad with ranch on the back porch. Bobbi’s mom, Cheryl, was on speakerphone, calling from her hotel to check in on us.

“She doesn’t!” I said, making eye contact with Bobbi, who looked at me skeptically in a way only an eight-year-old can.

“Yeah but that’s ’cause . . . well, do you sleep naked?” Bobbi asked, lowering her deafening voice for once like she was asking me in total confidence.

I burst out laughing.

“No!” I said.

I’ve had countless sleepovers with Bobbi in the past three years, and I never don’t pretend she’s my little sister, even though, at twenty-eight, I’m too old to be her sister. I feel too young and immature to be her mother. At twenty-eight, I’m more like an aunt or a cousin. I could easily be engaged or pregnant or have children of my own. But that is not my life. Instead, I babysit, still waiting for my real life to begin. In limbo. A friend sent me a birthday card that read, Happy Saturn Return, good luck with that, seriously.

“You could be in India having sex next year,” Cheryl told me once when I was down on myself about being such a loose end in the domestic department.

“Whereas I probably won’t!” she said.

When Cheryl called that night, Bobbi and I had been in the middle of an improvised séance, though I was unsure what dead person we were trying to contact. We held hands around an orange candle and chanted gibberish. It reminded me of the opening scene in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

In a mock new-age voice, Bobbi said, “o.k. now breeeeeeeaaathe in the baaaaaad energyyyyyy.”

“No way! Not doing that,” I said.

“Yeah but then you breathe it out.”

“Yeah but why do I have to breathe it in at all?”

“Just trust me and do it.”

“K.”

“Now look up at the sky and repeat after me: Iloveyoumommy-Iloveyoumommy.”

“IloveyoumommyIloveyoumommy.”

The phone rang. We screamed.  Read more…

How the Brontës Came Out As Women

The Brontë Sisters, by their brother Branwell. Via 
Wikimedia Commons.

Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical recep­tion of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventu­ally, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”

Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement. Read more…

Mass Extinction: The Early Years

American bison skulls, mid-1870s. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ashley Dawson | Extinction: A Radical History | OR Books | July 2016 | 13 minutes (3,487 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from Extinction: A Radical History, by Ashley Dawson, who argues that contemporary mass extinction is a result of the excesses of the capitalist system. In this chapter, Dawson gives a brief history of the ecocidal societies that came before ours. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

“Gilgamesh listened to the word of his companion, he took the axe in his hand, he drew the sword from his belt, and he struck Humbaba with a thrust of the sword to the neck, and Enkidu his comrade struck the second blow. At the third blow Humbaba fell. Then there followed a confusion for this was the guardian of the forest whom they had felled to the ground. For as far as two leagues the cedars shivered when Enkidu felled the watcher of the forest, he at whose voice Hermon and Lebanon used to tremble. Now the mountains were moved and all the hills, for the guardian of the forest was killed.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh (2500–1500 BCE)

When did the sixth extinction begin, and who is responsible for it? One way to tackle these questions is to consider the increasingly influential notion of the Anthropocene. The term, first put into broad use by the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, refers to the transformative impact of humanity on the Earth’s atmosphere, an impact so decisive as to mark a new geological epoch. The idea of an Anthropocene Age in which humanity has fundamentally shaped the planet’s environment, making nonsense of traditional ideas about a neat divide between human beings and nature, has crossed over from the relatively rarified world of chemists and geologists to influence humanities scholars such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, who proposes it as a new lens through which to view history. Despite its increasing currency, there is considerable debate about the inaugural moment of the Anthropocene. Crutzen dates it to the late eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution kicked off large-scale emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This dating has become widely accepted despite the fact that it refers to an effect rather than a cause, and thereby obscures key questions of violence and inequality in humanity’s relation to nature. Read more…

A Fish So Coveted People Have Smuggled, Kidnapped, and Killed For It

Photo: Qian Hu

Emily Voigt | Scribner | May 2016 | 18 minutes (4,498 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Dragon Behind the Glass, by Emily Voigt. This story is recommended by Longreads editor Mike Dang.

* * *

Taiping, Malaysia, May 11, 2004

Chan Kok Kuan still wasn’t home. Too worried to sleep, his father, Chan Ah Chai, stood at the window watching for a sign of his son through the blinding downpour. The rain had started at midnight and was still pummeling the ground at 4:00 a.m.—flooding the streets and overflowing the lakes in the public gardens, where the century-old saman trees stretch their massive canopies over Residency Road.

A wiry, exuberant man of thirty-one, the younger Chan was not the type to stay out late without calling. He had been home for dinner that evening, as usual, after working all day at the aquarium shop he opened a few years back. Even as a child, he had loved anything with fins. Now he was expert in one species in particular: the Asian arowana, the most expensive tropical fish in the world.

In Chinese, the creature is known as long yu, the dragon fish, for its sinuous body plated with large scales as round and shiny as coins. At maturity, the primitive predator reaches the length of a samurai sword, about two to three feet, and takes on a multihued sheen. A pair of whiskers juts from its lower lip, and two gauzy pectoral fins extend from its sides, suggesting a dragon in flight. This resemblance has led to the belief that the fish brings prosperity and good fortune, acting as a protective talisman to ward off evil and harm. Read more…

Women Were Included in the Civil Rights Act as a Joke

Airline advertisements give a general idea of women's role in the workplace in the 1960s. Via Flickr.

Gillian Thomas | Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work | St. Martin’s Press | March 2016 | 20 minutes (5,287 words)

The excerpt below is adapted from Because of Sex, by Gillian Thomas. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

If there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex, the laughter would have proved it.

On February 8, 1964, an eighty-year-old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives and changed the lives of America’s working women forever.

It was the eighth and last day of debate on a bill that would become the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Smith had a proposed amendment to Title VII, the section dealing with equal employment opportunity. The current draft already prohibited discrimination because of race, color, religion, and national origin, but Smith, a Democrat from Virginia, wanted to add one more category. The clerk read Smith’s proposal aloud. “After the word ‘religion’ insert ‘sex’ on pages 68, 69, 70 and 71 of the bill.”

Smith played his “little amendment” for laughs, claiming to have been inspired by a letter he had received from a female constituent. She asked the government to “protect our spinster friends,” who were suffering from a shortage of eligible bachelors. Over guffaws from his virtually all-male audience, Smith concluded, “I read that letter just to illustrate that women have some real grievances and some real rights to be protected. I am serious about this thing.” Emanuel Celler of New York, the bill’s floor manager in the House, joined in the fun. “I can say as a result of forty-nine years of experience—and I celebrate my fiftieth wedding anniversary next year—that women, indeed, are not in the minority in my house,” he said. “I usually have the last two words, and those words are, ‘Yes, dear.’”

Several of the House’s twelve women representatives rose to try to silence the laughter and advocate seriously for the amendment. Martha Griffiths, Democrat of Michigan, was the one who finally succeeded. “I presume that if there had been any necessity to point out that women were a second-class sex,” she said, “the laughter would have proved it.” Griffiths (who supported the bill) made a shrewd appeal to the Civil Rights Act’s opponents, mainly Southern Democrats like Smith. By then, it looked inevitable that the law they hated had enough votes to pass. So she warned that without the sex provision, Title VII would afford more rights to black women than to white women. “A vote against this amendment today by a white man is a vote against his wife, or his widow, or his daughter, or his sister.”

The session eventually dubbed “Ladies Day in the House” had the hallmarks of an impromptu stunt by Smith to try to sink the Civil Rights Act. Civil rights for African Americans might have been palatable to many white legislators now that the horrors of Bull Connor and Birmingham had become national news, but civil rights for women were, literally, a joke.

Though it might have seemed incongruous for an avowed enemy of civil rights, Howard Smith had a long history of supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. Under pressure from the ERA’s supporters, he actually had been dropping hints for weeks that he intended to offer a “sex” amendment. (Most of the ERA’s supporters were white, and many kept alive a legacy of not-so-subtly racist activism dating back a century that decried expanded legal protections for African American men, such as the right to vote, that were denied to women.) As a friend to southern manufacturing interests, Smith also might have understood the human capital that would be freed up by a federal law nullifying widespread state law restrictions on women’s ability to work as many hours as men.

When Smith’s amendment was put to a vote a few hours later, it passed 168 to 133, with the most votes in favor cast by Republicans and Southern Democrats. From the gallery came a woman’s shout, “We’ve won! We’ve won!” and then another’s cry, “We made it! God bless America!” After the bill moved to the Senate for consideration, Smith’s amendment remained intact. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, among its provisions was a ban on discrimination in employment “because of sex.” Read more…

Postwar New York: The Supreme Metropolis of the Present

Demobilized soldiers returning to New York. Via Flickr.

David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)

 

The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

Probably I was in the war.

—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)

*

A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.

In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”

At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”

Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.

“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…