ON THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE: FRANZ WERFEL’S THE FORTY DAYS OF MUSA DAGH

These days the Armenian genocide is back on the news thanks to the law passed by the French Senate criminalising its denial (see, for instance, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16677986). This law, proposed by Sarkozy’s party and sanctioned by him as President, is quite similar to the corresponding German law that makes it a criminal offence to deny the Jewish Holocaust. Sarkozy is himself of Jewish descent, which might have something to do with the passing of this law; the Turkish government, however, attributes it to the electoral interests vested on the 500,000 million French citizens of Armenian descent living now in France. The Turks have threatened to sever their many business and political ties with France, and have angrily argued that France should acknowledge the genocide committed in Algeria before accusing innocent nations of false crimes.

As happens, I’m supervising a PhD dissertation in Comparative Literature on the literary representations of the Armenian genocide in novels written in three different languages: Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933, German); Antonia Arslan’s Skylark Farm (2004, Italian) and Gonzalo Hernández Guarch’s El árbol armenio (2002, no English translation). As a result of doing research connected with the First World War, I realised the Holocaust had much to do with it, particularly as regards the implementation of technology to eliminate great masses of human bodies and the rise of Nazism (marked partly by Hitler’s experiences in the trenches). I spent quite a while reading and reading about the Jewish Holocaust –I still do– in particular in relation to its representation in popular American texts (like the film Schindler’s List or the TV series Holocaust). When, out of the blue, this Armenian doctoral student, Anna Manukyan, emailed the Department asking for help I volunteered. I’m learning so much more than she…

My position on the Armenian genocide is very simple: it happened, it must be acknowledged. Just like the Jewish Holocaust it was carried out under cover of a major world war but it was not part of the war. Those responsible for it in Turkey are NOT all the Turks and I believe that the drama of its denial will only end when the Turkey Government realises that they should draw a very clear line separating modern Turkey from the excesses committed by the Young Turks’ party almost a 100 years ago. The Germans did that and although the whole nation asked for forgiveness, it’s clear to everyone (I hope) that the Nazis were to blame, not every single German down until our days. Likewise, Spain has much to atone for in relation to the multiple genocides committed in South America and I think it’s about time we ask publicly for pardon. The genocide committed by Franco’s regime on the Civil War’s Red losers is, of course, so impossible to acknowledge that Judge Garzón is now being tried for attempting to investigate it. I do understand Turkey’s chagrin, fear and mistrust at being asked to declare their guilt over such horror but it must be acknowledged. Same regarding the French and Algeria, and a long, sad etc. all over the world.

Read The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, please. Werfel was an Austro-Bohemian Jew –a colleague of another illustrious Franz, Kafka– who found in the Armenian genocide the perfect example to warn all European Jews of what might soon happen. 1933, when the book was published, was the year of Hitler’s rise to power; 1935 saw the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. Fancy Werfel touring Germany, as he did, to unmask the already forgotten reality of the Armenian tragedy, which he knew first hand from a journey to the Middle East in which he met a handful of survivors. He had to flee Europe, sure enough, chased by the Nazis, and find refuge in the USA. His novel was at the time an immense best-seller –criticised as anti-Turkish propaganda. It’s an immense work, not only because of its length (800 to 900 pages, depending on the edition), but also because of the intensity of the events it narrates. I was really astonished by its classic literary quality and disappointed that a novel like this one is not hailed as a major work. Excuse my ignorance, but I had never heard of it. Ironically, Amazon.co.uk has no copies available of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh but it still offers Werfel’s other best-seller, written after an emotional visit to Lourdes, The Song of Bernadette (1941). The excellent Spanish translation (Losada, 2003), which I read, is, fortunately, available.

I forgot to say that the Armenian genocide was so savage that the German military officers working then in Turkey (Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies during World War I), were appalled. The motivation, by the way, was partly ethnic and partly religious, as the Armenians are Christians. I never thought I would write this but the Jewish Holocaust was more humane (my God!), with the Nazis struggling to find the fastest, most effective method to eliminate the victims (hence Zyklon-B). In contrast, the Armenians were rounded up by paramilitary forces of dubious composition, forced to leave their homes taking roads leading nowhere, and left to die after being abused and starved. Most Armenian women were, besides, raped.

I always wonder where the genocide deniers of any kind think the missing millions have gone to. 2015, just around the corner, marks the hundredth anniversary of the violent vanishing of 1,5 million human beings. Let’s hope that by then this loss is no longer denied for the sake of the Armenian nation and for all our sakes.

IN YOUR OWN WORDS (OR NOT…): USING GOOGLE AS A WRITING AID

One of my second-year students emails me a paper with a suspiciously wide-ranging vocabulary. I smell the usual rat, google the suspect sentences like mad but find no convincing evidence of plagiarism. My gut feeling, however, tells me that something has gone awry and, rightly or wrongly, I award the paper the lowest possible mark, hoping she’ll offer a justification. A good one. She comes at once to my office and explains that the over-rich vocabulary comes partly from Google Translator and partly from plain, straightforward googling. There are, of course, no rules against using that or online dictionaries at home. I ask the student to submit a second version, as the paper needed anyway some revision, and will base the final mark on it, no grudges kept.

I explain the case to someone outside the university and he tells me that he’s not sure this is the right solution, considering we value our students’ language skills. Let me explain his reasoning: when writing an exam no dictionaries or thesaurus are allowed and this means that students are assessed on the basis of their actual (written) command of English. In the case of papers, as this girl shows, since Google and all the linguistic tools that the internet offers are available, the results are ‘distorted.’ Students produce, in short, texts at a higher level than they can actually command. I want to suppose that this is not negative and that Google has allowed this girl not just to produce a better paper than expected but also to learn new vocabulary –we’ll see whether she ever uses the phrase ‘dour criticism’ again, though.

This happens in a week in which I’m also employed translating into English an essay I wrote originally in Spanish. Translating your own words is mind-boggling not only because you discover that your command of two languages is always bound to be asymmetrical (some things I know in Spanish I don’t know in English and vice-versa) but also because translating requires thorough rephrasing. At least 20% of the essay is now new. I also understand why literary writers say they never go back to their texts once they’re finished if they can help it, for I feel quite embarrassed by some of the passages (did I really mean that? Couldn’t I have put it in better words?) Anyway, I use Google all the time, as I did when I wrote the Spanish version, to check that some expressions and idioms do indeed exist. I don’t use Google Translator, as I think it produces texts that require too much revision but I don’t know what I’d do without WordReference. I don’t use, then, just the store of words lodged in my brain but the vast pool outside it. Happily for me and for whoever might read me.

This brings me back to the girl student. Also, to a piece of news published this week in Barcelona: “Schools propose exams with internet access”(http://www.lavanguardia.com/vida/20120123/54245244690/escuelas-proponen-examenes-acceso-internet.html) The argument backing this proposal is that in real life nobody relies just on their memory and it makes perfect sense to integrate the ‘enhancement’ tools we do use also in assessment (as the Danes have done…). Some assessment can still be based on mnemotechnics but new forms of cyber-assisted examinations can (or should) be introduced. It seems we’re already doing that by having traditional exams in the classroom and asking for papers! Not forgetting that the possibility of allowing students to bring notes and dictionaries into the exam classroom has always existed, though it may anathema for many teachers.

For me the key issue is time: a student writing a paper uses other sources and aids at his or her discretion; in exams time pressure might even affect students negatively if they’re allowed to check internet sources. Just think of the time that we spend googling our way into cyberspace to make our own words sound richer… and imagine yourself doing it within tight time limits for an exam. Um, not for me, thanks.

I’D RATHER LEARN THAN PLAY: WORKING TOWARDS A UNIVERSITY DEGREE IN KOREA (AND NEWS ABOUT LINCOLN)

Last Sunday I watched on TV3 a French documentary on Korean secondary-school kids, “South Korea, Slave to Education.” The film explains that Korean students are doing marvellously according to the PISA yearly report and also that they hold a top world record in that 8 out of 10 attend university. The thesis, however, as you can see from the title, is transparent: the price you pay for a good education is being enslaved to it.

Watching the poor teens in the film I can only say that I’m sorry that South Koreans are putting their kids through such impossible schedules. Basically, responsible South Korean parents seem to have convinced themselves and their children that in order to succeed in life by first getting a quality university degree, they must attend regular classes from 8 to 5 and then take a second helping until midnight or past. This is provided by private institutions and teachers in a way totally unregulated by the state. The whole point of the documentary was to show how dangerous for the physical and mental health of the kids this competitiveness is becoming. When a teen girl was told that in France kids don’t attend private classes after school unless they choose to for very particular reasons, she was flabbergasted. In self-defence she exclaimed ‘I’d rather learn than play.’

I know nothing except what the documentary taught me about South Korea but I should think that there’s a Catch22 at the bottom of all this. No country needs so many college graduates and even supposing only half of the 80% who attend university get a degree that is already too much. Logically, universities must want to select the best possible students and this unleashes the ferocious craving for ‘learning’ at secondary-school levels, prompted by quite pushy parents (doing their best, I’ll assume). The problem is that with rising standards, universities will become even more demanding, and kids will be further victimised. Someone stop this horrific snowball…

I was the kind of little girl who’d rather learn than play, but that was because learning was a pleasant game for me. Children have a right to enjoy their free time, and I used mine to read. I am speaking of a primary school system in which children were busy from 9 to 6, and then when we got home we were expected to do homework until at least 8 (supper-time at home has always been 9). Not much free time, then, except for weekends and holidays, though my impression is that the balance was fine. I see kids today deprived of some of their scant free time after school by harried parents who drag them to English, computer or sports classes, and that seems already too much. If you ask me, a good school system should need no extras (which makes me wonder what is so wrong with the South Korean system). Homework is quite another matter, as already a senior lecturer, I don’t seem to have ever stopped doing it, weekends included…

Perhaps the bottom line problem is that if we compare the basics needed 50 years ago with the basics needed today they have dramatically increased and there’s no way a kid may know enough to satisfy all his/her secondary school teachers much less his/her demanding university ones. Now, that might explain some of the difficulties South Korean students are facing but what baffles me is how here, on the other side of the world, we get university students capable of claiming that Abraham Lincoln was the king of the United States or, alternatively, a runaway slave that became the first black President (as seen in actual History exams). There must be a middle ground, I guess, and I just wish some of that South Korean ambition to do extremely well would come our way for the benefit of those who don’t have it.

MARKING PAPERS: COMMUNICATING VASES

I have just finished marking a batch of 48 papers (1,200 words on average each), a task which has taken much of my time this week, the weekend included. I wish actually I could say I’m done, for the downside of all that time and effort is that the poorest 23 of these papers will bounce back for reassessment according to the rules my university follows. So much for continuous assessment… Deep, deep sigh…

As I marked the essays the image that came to my mind all the time was that of communicating vases. These are, as you know, vases holding the same amount of liquid connected in a way that when one is depleted the other is filled. In ideal stasis both vases hold the same amount of liquid. The image might not apply to this case but the impression I’ve had through the many hours of marking is that my vase would fill and even overflow in direct relation to the student in question making very little effort to write his/her paper. A well-written paper of the kind I have marked may take 5 minutes to read (balanced vases), a bad one roughly 20 minutes (unbalanced vases). Why? When I mean mark, I really mean edit. With a well-written paper I can focus on simply reading; in the bad ones the ‘noise’ that poor writing and presentation make is so ‘loud’ that I can’t simply read. Ergo: the less a student works at polishing his/her paper, the more I have to work at reading/editing it. This is why marking is to tedious, time-consuming and, what is worse, brain-weakening…

All teachers hate marking and, believe it or not, it is one of the most exhausting teaching-related activities. This is because, as I was saying, we don’t limit ourselves to reading and tend, rather, to correct down to the last comma whatever is wrong in each exercise (well, I do, I can’t help it!). The brain-power needed to think of alternatives to errors and awkward phrasing is enormous, so big that after marking a few bad papers I can’t simply go on, which is why, of course, marking takes so long. I wish I could simply read the papers but we’re told students need feedback and this encompasses anything from adding missing an –s to third person singular present-tense verbs to explaining why the paper’s overall argumentation is not solid enough. I mark now all papers on my computer as I find writing comments on hard (printed) copies very untidy and also because I think I work faster. I realise, through, that I tend to make many, many comments and I guess that my students possibly hate to see so many blurbs added to their essays… It’s in good faith, believe me.

The theory of our new-style Bologna degrees is that the communicating vases can be balanced by offering in advance detailed guidelines as to what is required of the student’s exercises. How come, then, that two thirds of my marking effort have gone to asking students to check and re-edit their papers according to the guidelines? Big mystery…

READING ‘AVERAGE’ BOOKS (II): DAVID BRIN’S GLORY SEASON

I came across David Brin’s Glory Season (1993) while looking for a suitable topic for an oncoming conference on Utopian Studies in Tarragona (see http://wwwa.urv.cat/deaa/utopia/international/home.html). This, a low-tech SF novel about a utopian “feminist nirvana” written by a man, sounded promising enough, backed as it was by its Hugo and Locus nominations (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glory_Season). I hadn’t read anything else by Brin and checking the inevitable Amazon.com I learned that Glory Season is by no means his best effort, with top marks going to his multi-award books Startide Rising (1983) and The Uplift War (1987), both saga starters. Anyway, I decided to put the 3,5 star-rating at the back of my mind, brace myself for the disappointing ending most readers complained about and plod on, pencil in hand, for its almost 800 pages. What’s happened finally? Well, I have started re-reading the book at once because now that I am familiarised with the odd workings of Brin’s feminist separatist utopia (or dystopia?), it’s time to enjoy the ride.

This is one problem that science fiction and fantasy inevitably face: each novel, unless it is part of a series, describes a completely new world but, to make it more enticing, writers naturally provide information about it little by little. This means that the complete picture only emerges by the end and much is missed as the beginning, as I have checked myself just by re-reading the first 50 pages of Glory Season. Let’s say that the first reading has been tantalising enough to make me go back again, something I assumed only good short stories and poems could do. The ending, by the way, was, in this reader’s modest opinion, a beauty and I was really moved to see young Maia reach in this bildungsroman the point when she decides to be her own woman, stepping outside the restrictions that her matriarchal, clone-based society imposes.

This is a novel too dense to summarise in just a blog entry without doing an injustice to Brin’s “thought experiment” but I’ll argue to begin with that it’s enjoyable because it’s a nicely balanced cautionary tale about how the excesses of patriarchy can lead to the excesses of matriarchy, with individuals –male and female– suffering much for that. I am myself, despite my feminist beliefs, quite uncomfortable with the separatist, radical feminist utopias of the 1970s onwards (not forgetting Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s pioneering Herland) and this may be why I enjoyed Brin’s tale. I’m not blind to some of his worst misogynistic plot turns nor to the glaring absence of a basic human rapport between men and women, except for a handful of Maia-related exceptions, but I’m all in all satisfied with the energy Brin put into his task.

I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll focus on this novel for my conference paper as my plan-B topic seems more suitable (see my entry for cheeky sci-fi film Battle Los Angeles). Also because I have nagging doubts regarding the status of Glory Season among the SF community. Let’s say that David Brin enjoys a much higher reputation as an SF writer than Rafael Yglesias as a literary author, as attested by the top genre awards he’s got. Yet, Glory Season is not in the same league as the most obvious SF and Fantasy masterpieces and, lacking as many of these do, relevant bibliography about them I’m not sure I should devote my academic efforts to this novel just because I found it very interesting. I know it is not first rank because it often just rambles on, the protagonist gets too many whacks to her head that leave her unconscious and, although still in print, it has not made quite a stir since it was published, almost 20 years ago (nothing in MLA, of course). It’s the kind of novel, perhaps, to be commented on together with others in a discussion of utopian anti-patriarchal fiction by men (gosh!) but not quite justifiably a reason to write a paper focusing mainly on it. Or is it?

Here’s where I think that Medievalists have an advantage over us, specialists in the contemporary: time has sifted through the literary production of the past so thinly that nothing can be left out, whereas for us what kind of sieve we need to use is the first and foremost problem. I might, therefore, leave it at that: Rafael Yglesias’s novel is relevant and enjoyable enough if you’re interested in literary fiction about long-lasting romantic relationships; David Brin’s insightful critique of pastoral, feminist utopia is, likewise, relevant and enjoyable if this sub-genre is your cup of tea. This does not answer my question about what to do academically with ‘average’ books but if I ever write a paper about any of these two I’ll let you know.

READING ‘AVERAGE’ BOOKS (I): RAFAEL YGLESIAS’S A HAPPY MARRIAGE

In this and the following entry I’d like to write about two very different books I’ve been reading for academic purposes, in one case connected with teaching and in the other with the search for a topic linked to a conference. You’ll see why.

I chose Rafael Yglesias’s novel A Happy Marriage (2009) for my MA course on gender issues as I wanted to include a story about marriage itself, something not so easy to find. I was actually spurred by that poignant moment in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in which the narrator, Rob, acknowledges that he cannot fully commit to his relationship with his girlfriend Laura because he’s too cowardly to eventually face her death. He imagines Laura dying of cancer and, well, sadly this is exactly what happened to Rafael Yglesias’s wife of 30 years.

Seeking to overcome his grief and bereavement, Yglesias narrates in his autobiographical novel the first three and the last three weeks of their ‘happy’ marriage, using a title which he describes as “neither ironical nor sincere.” The novel is cleverly structured so that the beginning and the end of their story occupy alternating chapters. The author himself indicates in an interesting TV interview (see http://www.pctv76.org/show.php?epid=169) that despite the sincerity with which he portrayed himself even at his worst, this novel should not be approach in a “gossipy” spirit, as he aimed at telling “the truth” of human experience, and not just of his own. Interestingly, he set out to tell a story of a long romantic relationship but realised that this could only be told if a member of the couple had died. Yes, in fiction we need closure and this is what the female protagonist’s harrowing decay and death provide.

The novel is, as you may imagine, both moving and exasperating. Amazon.com readers value it highly and I can’t say I regret having included it in the course. In the end, however, apart from contributing plenty to our discussion about the lack of stories dealing with long-standing relationships –the ones assumed to be happy– Yglesias’s novel turned out to be particularly useful as an example of not quite successful quality literary fiction. We’d gone through Annie E. Proulx’s brilliant “Brokeback Mountain,” Sarah Waters’s sparkling Tipping the Velvet, Nick Hornby’s candidly confessional High Fidelity and Sophie Kinsella’s truly bad Can you Keep a Secret? with considerable critical self-assuredness. A Happy Marriage presented us, though, with the very interesting critical challenge of having to point out what exactly was wrong with it. In the end, we more or less agreed that the author sounded too smug, too self-centred to give the dying heroine enough presence and that, at too many points, his prose was too pretentious, yet we also felt oddly callous to be criticising someone’s style in a book that is so personal. On the other hand, one of my students did worry indeed that she was being taken in and that all Yglesias wanted was to cash in onto his wife’s awful death… an ugly suspicion…

As Yglesias includes so much about his own literary career in this novel, A Happy Marriage can also be read as a document regarding the life of the average American writer today. I mean the writer that perhaps should be called ‘mediocre’ but who is good enough to have been around for decades thanks to the loyalty of his or her readers. Perhaps we focus too often on the major living figures and the classics and forget that there’s a whole army of writers just getting by, struggling to write their best even though that might not be good enough to interest scholars in generating bibliography about them. And they must be the majority. I don’t think Yglesias, judging from this novel, will make it to the history books about contemporary US Literature yet, having found his book relevant though hardly pleasing given its subject matter, I can only wonder at how many other writers have been lost for us in, as the cliché goes, the mists of time.

THE ART OF ENTERTAINING: EGOS TEATRE’S ELS CRIMS DE LORD ARTHUR SAVILLE

This semester we’re awarding our Victorian Literature students extra points for attending a performance of either Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece La importància de ser Frank (see related posting in October), or Egos Teatre’s production of Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville, a musical based on Wilde’s short story. Ironically, Wilde’s classy and classic comedy was offered at the quite modest Teatre Gaudí whereas the musical is on at none other than the Sala Gran of the Teatre National de Catalunya. Yes, even more ironically, whereas the musical is subsidised with public money, Wilde’s classic was on at a commercial theatre.

I enjoyed myself enormously watching Egos’ ‘à la Sondheim’ musical version of Wilde’s cruel tale. As far as I am concerned, if a little bit of my taxes has gone to subsidising their joint effort this is fine, for I got back much pleasure for the evening. I actually think Egos have a very nice product in their hands that can be easily exported elsewhere in Spanish translation. As happens, whenever I see something really enjoyable in Catalan in one of our local theatres, whether commercial or subsidised, I can’t help thinking that either we’re VERY lucky to get such excellent performance standards or, the alternative, there must be HUNDREDS of great companies all over the world that pass unnoticed except locally because the language they use is not English (French, German… Spanish??).

Having said that, Egos’ musical ends with a song that comments on how the company’s only aim was offering a nice show and entertaining the audience. This chimed in very nicely with our last session with my Victorian class, as we discussed whether Wilde’s theatre was meant to be artistic or ‘only’ for entertainment. Very obviously, Wilde wrote for money and for a commercial theatre patronised by the upper classes. He was no committed Ibsenite and I very much doubt that, despite Salomé, he would have followed the road of the Shavian theatre club and the cherished project for a national theatre. Shaw explained in his The Quintessence of Ibsenism that whereas a typical, conventional play consisted of beginning, development and denouement, an Ibsenian play ended with the discussion of a serious issue. If considered from that angle nothing Wilde wrote was particularly significant; I find it particularly hard to explain why The Importance of Being Earnest has survived so well until our days. It must be its irreverence and its avowed intention to be a ‘trivial’ comedy for ‘serious’ people.

Shaw himself claims that a good play is that from which audiences take something home once the performance is over, meaning something apprehended intellectually, something learned – an idea, in short, or some kind of mental fulfilment. I didn’t get any new ideas from Els crims de Lord Arthur Saville but I did get much pleasure and this was due to something quite easy to notice: each member of the company had done their best to fill in the play to the brim with comic touches. There was much hard work behind every song, every gesture and this is why they got their well deserved ‘bravos.’ It might not be the kind of art Ibsen et al had in mind for the theatre, but there’s much to be said for the often neglected art of entertaining the audience.