Claudia Moscovici

Teaching Baudelaire: Edward Kaplan’s New Edition of Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil

Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil (1861) is known around the world as one of the most important collections of modern poetry. Influenced by Romanticism, Baudelaire (1821-1867) is not only an exquisite poet, but also one of the founders of modernism and the philosopher of modernity. Les Fleurs du Mal simultaneously evokes classic beauty and urban sensibility; true love and decadence; youth and decay; idealism and cynicism: all this and much more in one intoxicating bouquet of poems.

As contemporary as some these themes may be in the openness of our culture, Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal can also seem daunting and distant to American students who may have little background in nineteenth-century French culture or may need some help decoding the nuances of Baudelaire’s rich vocabulary.

Professor Edward K. Kaplan’s new and exciting edition of Baudelaire’s poems  bridges the temporal and linguistic gap between American students today and nineteenth-century France. His European Masterpieces Edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (Newwark, Delaware: Lingua Text, Ltd., 2010) includes a biographical and cultural introduction to Baudelaire and his times; translations of terms that American students are not likely to know, supplemented by a French-English glossary that offers more helpful translations of key terms. This accessible yet erudite edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, by a leading Baudelaire scholar and translator, will make Francophiles out of new generations of American students.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

November 29, 2010 Posted by | 19th century, Baudelaire, book review, Charles Baudelaire, Edward K. Kaplan, Les Fleurs du Mal, literary criticism, literature salon, modernism, Romantic aesthetics, Romantic poetry, Romanticism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Teaching Baudelaire: Edward Kaplan’s New Edition of Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil

American Adjustments: Hook ups and Parties at Princeton

Sometimes I feel like escaping from communist Romania during the 1980’s was the easy part, compared to adjusting to a new culture once I got here. In my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, I describe some of the East-meets-West challenges I faced, once I enrolled in college at Princeton University. If you think the Ivy Leagues are all about studying, then  read this chapter about “bickering” and hook ups at one of Princeton’s elite eating clubs, Ivy:

Chapter 8, Part II

Since it was already 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, Irina suspected that Lori, her roommate, would have returned by now from the art history library and may already be asleep. They had experienced quite a bit of tension lately due to the fact that, unbeknownst to Irina, Lori had switched from a mild case of Buddhism to hardcore Evangelical Christianity during the previous summer. Armed with a reborn moral consciousness, she now objected to Irina’s extracurricular activities. Irina wished she had been informed about Lori’s conversion before becoming her roommate.  The previous year, she recalled, Lori had been a nerdy but nonetheless gregarious freshman. Aside from spending most of her days and pre-exam nights in the glass cubicle of the art history library, during mealtimes–the only moments Lori could spare for socializing–she also engaged in normal sophomoric activities such as gossip, giggling and discussing her secret crushes on guys who weren’t aware of her existence. Since her spiritual rebirth, however, the two roommates began to experience some tension. Of course, Lori didn’t know for sure what went on between Irina and Jean-Pierre, and, furthermore, she considered it none of her business. However, since Irina posed nude for strange men and dated a much older Frenchman with dubious morals every weekend, her roommate assumed that her friend’s soul was in great peril.

To avoid stirring up discussions, Irina proceeded with caution. She slipped the key into the lock noiselessly, then felt her way into the living room without turning on the lights. In her painstaking effort not to wake up her roommate, she stumbled over a backpack, leaned on a little table to catch her balance and knocked off a lamp. An inquisitive light appeared underneath the bedroom door.

“Irina, is that you?” came an apprehensive voice from the bedroom.

“Yes. Sorry about that! I was trying not to wake you up!” Irina announced as she entered the small bedroom, furnished sparsely with two desks, two chairs and two bunk beds. Lori was perched on the upper bunk since Irina was scared of heights. She was dressed in a Hello Kitty pink nightgown. “Worked like a charm. But that’s okay, since I wasn’t sleeping anyway. I get worried knowing you’re wondering around at night.”

“Lori, normal college kids go out partying on Friday nights,” Irina informed her roommate.

“My parents didn’t pay 30,000 dollars a year for my college education so that I can waste my time on parties,” Lori retorted.

“Precisely. That’s why kids don’t generally tell their parents about what they do in college,” Irina concurred.

“Excuse me, but I’m not into dishonesty.”

“To each his own,” Irina replied with a shrug.

“So how did it go?”


“The meeting with the artist.”

“Okay…I guess.”

“Is he good?”

“I didn’t really get to find out.”

“How come?”

Lori avoided her roommate’s glance.

“Did he hit on you?” Lori asked, adopting the tone of someone whose worst suspicions are confirmed.

“No, nothing like that.”

“Did he sketch you?”


“Sculpt you?”


“Then what in the world did he do?”

“Nothing. As it turns out, the whole thing was based on a misunderstanding. He’s not really a painter.  Nor a sculptor for that matter. He’s an art history professor.”

“At least he’s got the word “art” in his title… What’s his name? I may know him.”

“Paul Smith.”

“He teaches Impressionism, right?”

“Yes. Did you take a class with him?”

“Not yet, but I’ve seen him around the department. He has a pretty good reputation.”

A few rapid knocks on the door interrupted their conversation. Irina went to the door and peered carefully through the peephole. She was surprised to see Christine, her freshman year roommate. The two of them got along okay, given that they were polar opposites. Christine was the perfect sorority girl: athletic (a member of both the rowing and the swimming teams), popular, and exceedingly social. She was as disciplined about going out to parties at the eating clubs on Thursday through Sunday nights (to which, to her credit, she was invited by junior and senior men) as she was about waking up bright and early at 5:00 a.m. to do three hours of rowing or swimming practice. The two roommates would have gotten along even better if it weren’t for Christine’s quick metabolism: she had such good circulation compared to Irina’s catatonic pulse that she slept with the windows wide open even in the dead of winter. Which made Irina feel like an experiment in cryogenics despite swaddling herself in the five exotic, camel wool blankets shipped express (by ship) by her grandmother directly from Romania.

Under more propitious circumstances, the girls might have become closer, since Christine wasn’t your typical vacuous party girl. Although she did look the part –long blond hair with fringed bangs brushed to the side; light blue eye shadow that matched the color of her eyes; heavy mascara, and glittery pink lip gloss—in private conversation she was able to say quite a bit more than “cool” and “what’s up?” Her parents lived in Switzerland most of the year and had a second home in their native Hartford, Connecticut. Christine had been educated in some of the best boarding schools and was fluent in English, French and German. With Irina she would discuss Brecht and Marquez, yet, unlike her less socially adept former roommate, she didn’t let culture stand in the way of her social life.

“Hi!” Irina said, her eyes wide with surprise.

Christine brushed her fringy bangs from her forehead. “Hey. I just dropped by to see if you guys wanted to go out to a club,” she said very casually.

Irina instinctively looked behind her, to check if there were any other guys in the room. “Us?”

“Yeah. This junior I hooked up with last week gave me free passes to Ivy,” Christine explained.

“And you’re inviting me and Lori to… Ivy?”

“That’s right, ” Christine confirmed the good news, however implausible it may have sounded.

Something was fishy about this whole scenario, Irina suspected. If it had been an invitation to Quadrangle, the dining club for which both Lori and Irina had signed up she might have understood. But Ivy? The most prestigious and selective of Princeton’s eleven eating clubs? Ivy was so posh that even F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about it in This Side of Paradise. Its importance to undergraduate life couldn’t be overestimated. In fact, the eating clubs in general were the center of the universe for Princeton upperclassmen. It’s there that they ate, hosted parties, listened to bands, got wasted, watched movies and—most importantly–hooked up, usually in the aftermath of a drunken stupor and right before, or sometimes even during, the bathroom barfing sessions.

Some of the clubs, like Quadrangle and Terrace (the artsy ones) and Colonial Club (which future doctors and lawyers tended to join) were non-selective. Which essentially meant that you entered your name in a lottery, listing your top three choices in order of preference, and automatically got into one of them. Independently of one another, Lori and Irina had both selected Quad, since it was comfortably literary and artistic without being pretentious. Unlike Terrace members, Quadies didn’t have a mandatory non-conformist uniform of all black attire (preferably dingy and in shreds) complemented by a wide variety of ripped fishnet stockings, black leather boots, and, if you were cool enough to pull it off, an optional bdsm dog collar. Irina’s number two choice, Colonial, was the nice, clean-cut professional club. Her third choice was, by default, Terrace, which is where the Studio Art crowd generally hung out. Terrace should have been Irina’s most logical first choice, given her interest in art. However, generally speaking, she preferred to read about decadence rather than practice it.

By way of contrast to these open admission clubs, Ivy  was selective—in fact, the most selective eating club on campus.  To get accepted, you had to bicker—meaning be chosen by its members after passing a series of interviews and challenges—and, above all, be one of the beautiful people. For women, beauty was a quality you were born with, confirmed by a rigorous hazing ritual that tested your social abilities, especially the most useful ones such as how sexy you looked in high heels and a tight and appropriately exorbitant evening gown; how well you handled eating a six course meal using three forks; and, last but not least, how well you tolerated near-lethal doses of alcohol while still maintaining your poise and conversational skills in at least three languages (though, in all fairness, all three of them could be slurred dialects of English).

“Thanks, but we’ve already signed up for Quad,” Lori responded curtly. Irina, who had a hankering for adventure, however, was interested in finding out more: “Why us?” she asked Christine.

“What do you mean?”

“Well… you must admit, we’re not exactly Ivy types….”

Christine feigned disagreement: “Of course you are!” she declared, looking at Lori, who, in her Hello Kitty pajamas and wide-rimmed pink glasses, must have looked like a scene from Revenge of the Nerds II with a female cast.

“I’m going to bed!” Lori announced and promptly withdrew into her bedroom like a turtle retreating into its shell.

“Are you bickering?” Irina peered straight into Christine’s cool blue eyes.

“Yes,” the latter was obliged to admit.

“So then, Lori and I are your challenge?”

“All I have to do is train a novice in the art of hooking up,” Christine cheerfully declared.

“What’s hooking up?” Irina asked, clearly qualifying both as a novice and as a challenge.

When discussing such matters, Christine naturally slipped into her best imitation of a Valley girl accent: “Well, you like get together with this guy you don’t really know, but you sort of know him. Like a friend of a friend. Or the cute guy in your orgo class you were hoping would ask you out. There’s no point waiting by the phone. We’re liberated women of the eighties, after all.” Since Irina’s liberated face still looked puzzled, Christine added: “Anyways, you’ll love it. It’ll be fun.”

Irina was not entirely convinced: “In order to hook up, do you have to sleep with the guy?”

“Not necessarily. If you don’t like him, you can just make out or something.”

“Now that’s a relief!”

“But for it to be technically a hook-up you’ve got to do stuff that, you know, you can’t really do in public. At least second base, preferably third,” Christine elaborated.

“I already have a boyfriend,” Irina announced, hoping this would dissuade Christine from pursuing the matter any further.

“You mean that old dude you were dating last year? Your French grandfather? Sorry, but he doesn’t count. You need to be with someone your own age. Or at least your father’s age,” Christine took a seat next to Irina on the sofa. “Alright,” she said slapping both hands on her knees to indicate that she was ready to get down to business.

“First step in a hook up: dress the part.”

Irina looked down at her knee-length pleated skirt, blue knee socks, Mary Jane shoes and fifties shirt buttoned all the way up to the collarbone. She was pretty pleased with herself:  “Done!”

Christine begged to differ: “Are you kidding me? You couldn’t even go to a funeral dressed in this outfit!”

“But I like my clothes,” Irina objected.  “They’re from Petite Sophisticate. Look: I even match, see?” she pointed with her forefinger to her light blue shirt and navy skirt ensemble.

“Irina, your clothes might be okay if you were postmenopausal. But you’ll never get a guy dressed like this. Unless of course he’s postmenopausal,” she added, alluding once again to poor Jean-Pierre.

“I don’t see anything wrong with my outfit,” Irina held her ground.

“Gosh! Where should I begin? For one thing, you don’t wear blue knee socks after graduating from grade school. Second, your skirt may have been popular in the fifties, but now it’s totally out…”

“The fifties are making a come-back,” Irina wanted to show that she too read Vogue and knew a thing or two about style.

“Not in this country,” Christine cut short that Eurofashion trend, and started picking on another: “How about your lipstick?”

Irina pressed and rubbed together her bright red lips: “What about it?”

“We’re not in the red light district of Amsterdam. Here,” Christine opened her slim Gucci bag, unzipped an inner pocket, and took out a glittery lip-gloss with sparkles: “This one’s more subtle.”

“If you’re a Christmas tree perhaps,” Irina mumbled.

“Listen, if you don’t want to look hip, that’s your problem,” Christine zipped up her purse to indicate that without cooperation, the pre-hookup mentoring was over.

Irina looked at her companion to understand better what it meant to look hip and ascertain if she herself could have such high aspirations. Christine wore a tight, stretchy white tube top through which you could see the areolas of her nipples. The shirt was so tiny that it exposed, to her advantage, other parts of her anatomy as well, such as her bellybutton. The bottom was as fashionably undressed as the top: she wore a low-rise blue miniskirt with ruffles, which barely covered her behind. If Christine dropped something on the floor and had to bend over to pick it up, she could spare several lucky voyeurs the cost of buying a Playboy. Her hair was bleached platinum blond and her fringed bangs fell in a sweep upon her eyes, obliging her to periodically toss her head with confidence. Unconsciously, Irina imitated that motion, though perhaps slightly less gracefully than her companion.

“What’s the matter? A fly landed on your head?” Christine inquired.

Irina gave her a dirty look, but Christine continued her constructive criticism: “No wonder. Just look at your hair. It’s a mess. You’re in desperate need of a haircut.”

“I prefer my hair long,” Irina said.

“Then you need to do something with it.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Comb it?”

Given the turn the conversation had taken, Irina became even less enthusiastic about being selected as Christine’s hazing subject. “I don’t know about this hook up, make-over thing. Maybe it’s just not for me,” she tried to back out of the whole operation.

But it was too late. “Nonsense!” Christine said.  “After I get through with you, you’ll look sensational. I guarantee it. The guys will stick to you like flies,” she reassured her, spraying a generous dose of Polo for Women on her former roommate.

“I’m not exactly the femme fatale type,” Irina pointed out.

“Well…  I can’t argue with that,” Christine acknowledged the great challenge she was facing. But becoming a member of Ivy and partying hard every weekend with la crème de la crème of Princeton undergraduate society made the hardship and pain well worth it. With a renewed sense of resolution, Christine got up from the sofa, walked into the bathroom and came back with moist towel in her hands.

“First things first. We’ve got to get rid of this dreadful make-up,” she said, alluding to Irina’s bright red lipstick and orange blush, which the latter thought went beautifully with her long dark hair, giving her the glossy look of a painted doll that was still in vogue in some corners of Eastern Europe (at least for the older, babushka generation).

“What brand of make-up do you use?” Christine inquired.

“I don’t know. Whatever they sell at Wal-Mart,” Irina responded. That, apparently, was not the correct answer.

“L’Oreal? Max Factor?” Christine jogged her friend’s memory.

“No way! That stuff’s expensive. I use the one dollar kind.”

“Grody,” Christine scowled. Once she wiped Irina’s face clean of the cheap discount paint, she reopened her purse and exhibited each of its wonders, one by one, patiently explaining to Irina their purpose: “Try using Estée Lauder. It’s good stuff, plus affordable. You can find it at Macy’s, Filene’s, Sack’s Fifth Avenue, you know, all the discount stores,” she said, concluding the beauty session.

“You call those stores discount?”

“Yes. What do you call them?”


“Well, you know what they say. You get what you pay for,” Christine expressed her philosophy of life and started patting foundation with the tips of her fingers upon Irina’s face. She stepped back to take a look at her canvas, after which she approached again, took out a little brush made out of fine pony hair, gently dipped it in a palate of Delectable Peach blush and began applying it with little strokes along Irina’s cheekbones. “Better,” she concluded, taking once again a step back to examine her masterpiece. Then she took out the Magic Pink gloss and rubbed it on Irina’s lips. “Go like this,” she instructed, pressing and moving her own lips together in example.  Irina complied. “What an improvement!” Christine congratulated herself. “Let’s move on to the hair. What do you call that bird’s nest on top of your head?”

“My bun?” Irina wondered.

“So that’s what it is! Buns are for grannies and cinnamon places,” Christine informed her.

Irina would not accept criticism of her hairstyle as easily as the other comments: “For your information, elegant French women wear chignons.”

“But since you’re neither elegant nor French…” Christine allowed Irina to draw her own conclusions. She then undid her companion’s hair, which fell down in gentle, long brown waves. “What a lot of hair! Now what should we do with it…” Christine pondered. A solution occurred to her. She took out a slim, brown comb from her magic purse and parted Irina’s hair straight in the middle, except for the straight bangs, which Irina preferred because they camouflaged imperfections during a certain critical time of the month. “Do you want spiral curls?” Christine asked.

“I guess.”

“Okay, then hand me your curling iron.”

“I don’t have one.”

Christine’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? You’re a sophomore in college and you don’t even own a curling iron?”

“I have books,” Irina thought this bit of information might compensate for her deficiency in the styling department. Her comment was duly ignored. One had to admit, however, that with parted, smooth long hair, mascara, pink lip gloss and a more subtle shade of peach blush than the usual bright orange, Irina looked almost sophisticated. Christine now felt prepared to confront the even more daunting wardrobe challenge.

“Could you please remove your knee socks?” she asked politely yet unequivocally.

“Why? I like my socks!”

“Irina, you’re not in grade school any more. In college, you—and by you, I mean a normal woman, of course–wear pantyhose with closed-toe shoes, or bare legs with open-toed sandals. That’s the rule.”

“Alright,” Irina reluctantly removed her Mary Janes and blue knee-highs.

“Do you have any air freshener?” Christine inquired, crinkling her nose once this procedure was over. She bent down to spray some Polo for women on Irina’s feet. “Oh, my Gosh!” she screamed in utter shock, her hand flying to her chest.

“What happened?” Irina asked, startled.

“Are you planning to join the East German women’s swim team?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Have you ever heard of shaving?”

“Why? I don’t have a beard,” Irina protested.

“I mean your legs! They’re horrid!”

“But I do shave my legs! Once a week.”

“Clearly that’s not enough…” Christine ran her fingers past the stubble. “You should wax.”

“I should what?” Irina asked, confused about what cleaning floors had to do with personal grooming.

“Wax. They apply these strips of wax and pull your hair away everywhere it’s necessary: legs, bikini line, underarms,” Christine explained. “It hurts a little at first but in the end it’s well worth it. Irina, you’re in desperate need of a spa treatment. Look at your toenails! We can’t be seen in public like this. When was your last pedicure?”

Irina didn’t have to think hard:  “Never.  I didn’t think I needed one.”

“Of course you do! Every self-respecting woman needs one. What a mess! But we don’t have time to fix all this right now. You’ll just have to wear tights with a mini and pray that whoever has the misfortune to hook up with you won’t turn on the light. Or touch your legs. Oh, hell, let’s just hope he’ll be drunk out of his mind.”

“Who said I want to hook up with anyone, let alone a drunk?”

Since this was Christine’s main challenge in the hazing process, it was the one point she refused to concede: “Do you have much tolerance for alcohol?”

“I drink half a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve,” Irina informed her.

“Good,” Christine pronounced. “A few shots of tequila and you’ll be good to go.”

She examined Irina up and down. The pleated long skirt still didn’t pass the minimum standard. “Do you have a nice short skirt? And this time… please, something that’s not borrowed from your grandmother’s closet.”

“I’ve got jeans,” Irina proposed the next best thing.

“Alright. But at least wear them with a tube top!”

“How about this shirt?” Irina showed her a pink top.

Christine shook her head: “Too prosaic. Unless, of course, they’ll have a wet t-shirt contest tonight.” Then she looked at Irina’s modest sized chest and had a change of heart: “Or maybe not …”

Irina went into her bedroom, rummaged frantically through her closet, and came out dressed in a white extra-small white t-shirt, tight Levis jeans and blue flats.

“Change those clods to high heels,” Christine commanded with the poise of a general. Irina reemerged like a brave solider—or guinea pig—wearing high-heeled shoes: “So how do I look?”

“Like you’re going out for an ice-cream in the afternoon with a former boyfriend you’re no longer in love with,” Christine pronounced the fashion verdict and the two girls finally headed out to Ivy Club.

Chapter 9, Part II

Irina and Christine made their way down Prospect Street, the main artery of Princeton’s pulsating social life, where all the eating clubs were located.

“Walk like a girl,” Christine advised her companion.

“I am!”  Irina protested, looking around. As far as she could tell in the darkness, clusters of young women and men were walking in a more or less serpentine, uneven manner, leaning upon one another, talking loudly and laughing. “What’s the point of learning how to walk sexy if once you leave the clubs, you’re so drunk that you can barely put one foot in front of the other?” she asked.

“Don’t you make your bed in the morning?” Christine inquired.

“Yeah, so?”

“Since you’re going to mess it up anyway, why bother?”

Although impressed by her friend’s Socratic reasoning, Irina resisted its conclusion: “Walking is the most convenient way of getting from point A to point B.  I learned how to do it when I was two,” she retorted.

“And that’s precisely your problem. You’re a case of arrested development. Take longer steps. Stand up straighter and swing your hips. Like this,” Christine demonstrated a sinuous walk, something between the model’s catwalk and the prostitute’s catcall. Irina tried to mimic the movement, swaying her hips and teetering on her high heels.

“Let’s just stick to the toddler walk, okay?” Christine proposed, after silently observing her.

Since the girls were about to enter Ivy Club, Christine flashed an artificial smile that remained glued to her face for most of the evening. The club was dark, crowded and noisy. Everyone strived to talk a few decibels above the blaring pop music. The popular song Shake it, shake it real good set the romantic tone of the evening. Every room was redolent with the aroma of beer mixed with expensive cologne and perfume that were punctuated by a hint of vomit.

Christine apparently knew her way around the place pretty well. “Hey. How’s it going?” she greeted a few acquaintances, then pulled Irina by the sleeve into a corner, to give her a few more pointers. “You’re in luck tonight,” she announced.

“Why?” Irina asked in all sincerity, since she was intimidated by crowds, was attracted to older men rather boys her own age, didn’t drink except for New Year’s Eve and preferred French songs of the sixties and seventies to American pop music.

“Since this is hazing week, there are a few men in your league here tonight. It shouldn’t be that difficult to hook up,” Christine delivered the good news. “See that tall guy with the little hat and glasses on the left? The one standing next to the gorgeous blond?” she discretely pointed with her pinky in their direction.

Irina looked to the left. “That’s not a hat, it’s a yarmulke,” she instantly recognized Ben, the lanky boy with a twin brother from the Hillel Club. They had engaged in a brief conversation a few weeks ago, following an inspiring lecture on the future of Zionism. Irina went to Hillel from time to time to get back in touch with her Jewish roots.

“I’m kind of into the blond guy myself,” Christine staked her claim.

“Do you know him?”

“Yeah,” Christine affirmed. “His name is Josh. We’ve never actually spoken, but I see him all the time at the Arch Sings. He’s so unbelievably cute, don’t you think? He’s a  Footnote.” She didn’t need to say more, since everyone from Princeton knew that being a member of The Footnotes, the oldest all male a capella group on campus, represented the epitome of coolness. The  Footnotes were all gorgeous and sang with beautiful, well harmonized voices, wooing the female members of the audience with their boy band charm: head cocked to the side, hand to the heart, looking straight into the longing eyes of the prettiest girls in the crowd while singing timeless love songs. Even Irina was obliged to admit that Josh was a hottie: blond hair cropped short, sparkling blue eyes, tall, the built of an Adonis, white Polo shirt and jeans with strategic holes in them which cost extra.

“What if I prefer Josh to Ben?” Irina wondered out loud.

Christine gave her a look that clearly indicated such a violation of the girl code would most certainly not be kosher.  “I thought you were Jewish,” she said.

“Only on my father’s side. Which doesn’t really count. Except when it comes to persecution and pogroms,”  Irina explained her ethnic status.

“That’s too bad…” Christine replied, thinking about how the two of them could double score with the guys. “Let’s go say hi to them, okay?” she proposed a logical first line of attack.

Josh smiled charmingly at Christine as soon as they made eye contact. “Hey. What’s up?” he struck a smooth conversation.

“Nothing much, just hanging out,”  Christine eloquently replied.

“I saw you at the Arch Sing the other day,” Irina informed Josh.

“I know, I was there,” Josh laughed, attempting to impress the girls with his wit. Christine laughed obligingly, but Irina just found the comment a bit rude, so she turned to his companion.

“Hi Ben. Do you remember me?”

Ben drew a blank.

“From the Hillel lecture? On Zionism?” Irina refreshed his memory.

“Trina, right?” Ben replied.


“Oh, yeah. Now I remember. You’re Russian,” Ben informed her.

“Romanian. Same difference!”

“Do you girls want something to drink?” Josh asked.

“What do they have? I’m in the mood for a Cosmo,” Christine replied.

“We’ve got  Miller light, Bud and Guinness. On tap.”

“I guess I’ll have a beer then,” Christine said, amused by the variety of options.

“And what would you like?” Josh graciously turned to Irina.

“I’d like a Perrier with a lime twist, please,” Irina named her favorite beverage. She felt a sharp elbow poke in the ribs—on the side closest to Christine– and abruptly changed her mind,  “I’ll have a beer too. Thanks.”

“Be right back, ladies,” Josh answered gallantly and headed for the bar. Which left Ben on his own with the two girls.  “Do you go to Israel often?” he asked Irina, preferring to start on familiar ground.

“Once a year, to see my grandmother,” she replied.

“Where does she live?”

“In Carmiel. Do you know where that is?”

“Sure. Near Haifa.”

“That’s right!” Irina exclaimed, surprised to see that someone else had heard of Carmiel. “Is that where your family lives too?”

“I’ve got a few relatives in Haifa and Tel Aviv,” Ben said.

“Do you visit them often?” Irina asked.

“About once a year. I spend my summers either with relatives or at a kibbutz. But I plan to move to Israel permanently once I finish college.”

Christine was beginning to feel left out, so Ben attempted to include her in the conversation:

“Are you Jewish too?” he turned to her.

“No. German on my mother’s side; Swiss on my Dad’s, protestant on both,” she replied.

Ben considered her genealogy  for a moment. “Was your grandfather a Nazi?” he pursued tactfully.

“I beg your pardon?”


Christine’s face brightened when her knight in shinning armor  returned with two beers to save the damsels in distress.

“Thanks,” the girls said in unison when Josh offered them their drinks.

“So, you’re trying out for Ivy?” Josh asked Christine.

“Does your grandmother like Carmiel?” Ben asked Irina.

“Sure, why not?” Christine shrugged. “It seems fun.”

“Actually, it’s a very sad story,” answered Irina. “My grandfather died a few years ago. My grandmother Sara is only seventy-four, which is not that old, but she’s very ill. She has Alzheimer’s’ or something very similar to it. The doctors aren’t sure, since the symptoms of her illness resemble the advanced stages of senility. Basically,  she’s losing her memory. It fades in and out. Last summer, there were times when she didn’t even recognize me. It’s terrible to see someone you love deteriorate like that.”

“I can’t complain. Life’s a blast,” Josh cheerfully told Christine.

“I  know what you mean,” Ben answered sympathetically.

“If the rumors are true, you guys sure know how to party…” Christine replied.

“That’s not the worst of it,” Irina said. “She has these weird hallucinations that people are coming to steal her clothes. She once ran out naked into the street. Can you imagine? At her age?”

“Whew! Man, is it getting hot in here or is it just me?” Josh asked, shaking his shirt, which clung to his moist skin.

“Gee, that’s a serious problem,” Ben responded.

“I’m getting hot too,” Christine answered and took a sip of her cold beer, looking seductively into Josh’s eyes.

“Is there something you guys can do about it?” Ben asked Irina.

Josh was already thinking ahead, about where he might be able to carry on a more private conversation with Christine later on that night. “What do you like to do for fun?” he asked her.

“Unfortunately, not much,” Irina replied. “I mean, from thousands of miles away what can one do, right? After that incident, we hired someone to take care of her. She definitely can’t live on her own any more.”

“I try to live life to the fullest,” Christine answered.  “I do a little bit of everything: swimming, dancing, rowing, skiing, hanging out at parties…I even learned how to surf last summer. Though I grew up in Switzerland, I love hot weather and the beach.”

“So why don’t you move to Israel then?” Ben suggested.  “It would be so much easier to take care of your grandmother if you’re actually there.”

“No kidding!” Josh said,  intrigued by Christine’s athletic abilities. “I’m from Colorado, but I’d love to learn how to surf. Maybe you can teach me some day.”

“I can’t,” Irina answered with certitude. “It would be too complicated. My family’s settled here. My parents have jobs in Ann Arbor; we bought a house; I’m going to college here. As for Israel, to tell you the truth, my sentimental ties are to my family, not the country.  Generally speaking, I love people, not places. You know what I mean?”

“Sure,” Christine answered breathlessly. “If we ever happen to visit California together,” she added.

“No,” Ben firmly responded. Irina’s answer hadn’t scored any bonus points with him. “How can you say that Israel’s just a place? It’s our home. The only place the Jewish people have left on Earth. Aren’t you Jewish? Don’t you care?”

“Maybe one day,” Josh answered.  “I also love to swim and play tennis. In high school I was Varsity on both teams. Do you play tennis?”

“Of course I do,” Irina responded. “But one can be Jewish without living in Israel. Don’t Jews live all over the world?”

“Yes, but not that well,” Christine replied.

“And that’s precisely the problem,” Ben said. “Without a nation of their own, Jews are at the mercy of the world.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Josh calmly replied. “We can practice together this weekend if you want,” he proposed.

“Now wait a minute: I think you’re going a bit overboard,” Irina replied. “The Jewish people can survive without all moving to Israel. Besides, it’s a sliver of a country. Where would we all fit?”

“I’ll see if I can squeeze you in,” Christine smiled playfully at Josh. “Who knows? I may surprise you. Maybe I’ll beat you at your own game…” she teased.

“How stupidly optimistic! That’s called sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich,” Ben declared.

“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that…” Josh answered cheerfully. “So do you have a roommate? Or do you live all by your lonesome self?” he charmingly segued to his more immediate concern.

“Now how can you talk to me this way?  For God’s sake, you don’t even know me!” Irina protested.  “Don’t you think you’re being a bit narrow-minded to judge me?” she narrowed her eyes at Ben.

“Yes,” Christine replied. “I have a single in Joline Hall. It’s small but cozy,” she added, toying with one of Josh’s shirt buttons.

“What you need is to marry a good Jew and have a dozen kids,” Ben suggested.

By then, Josh had his hands all over Christine’s behind and his tongue was attempting to tie the knot with hers.

“A woman’s duty is making babies,” Ben pursued, showing how enlightened orthodoxy could be even when it lagged a few hundred years behind the times and adopted nineteenth-century Pale of Settlement ghettos as its cultural ideal.

Christine and Josh seemed prepared to practice what Ben preached.

“Excuse me, but I want to be an artist, not some man’s baby machine,” Irina said.

Josh felt in his pant pocket to check if he still had that extra condom.

“Women are no good at art,” Ben declared.

Josh, however, considered Christine pretty adept at the art of love.

“Oh yeah? Have you ever heard of Berthe Morrisot? Or Mary Cassatt? How about Georgia O’Keeffe?” Irina countered.

“Man, if I make out with this hot chick,” Josh vowed, feeling particularly romantic that starry night, “tomorrow I’m buying her flowers.”

“Big deal! Babies and flowers. Who cares about that stuff anyways?” Ben retorted.

Apparently Josh did. He cared about flowers that resembled female genitalia and definitely liked female genitalia  that resembled flowers. “Do you wanna go over to my place?” he whispered hotly in Christine’s ear.

“I thought you liked babies and wanted to have twelve of your own,” Irina said to Ben.

“How about we go to my place instead?” Christine proposed, preferring to be on familiar turf with an unfamiliar man.

“I think women should make babies, not paint them,” Ben replied.

Josh and Christine more or less concurred with this plan–at least with the process, if not exactly the end result. “Irina, Josh and I are going to go hang out together,” Christine announced.  “We’ll talk tomorrow, alright?”

“Okay.” Irina found an entirely unnecessary excuse to part company with Ben and return promptly to her dorm room, feeling that if “hooking up” is what dating entailed in America, she’d give serious consideration to her grandmother’s idea of an arranged marriage.

Claudia Moscovici, from my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism

November 21, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, eating clubs at Princeton, fiction about Princeton University, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Princeton, Princeton University, social life at Princeton, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on American Adjustments: Hook ups and Parties at Princeton

Velvet Totalitarianism: When Love Triumphs Over Oppression

We  know why we read genre fiction, like the latest Harry Potter saga or Stephen King’s horror novels. Genre fiction helps us escape from our daily lives. It carries us to an alternative world that is either so fantastic, or so horrific, that it takes our minds off the tedium of our jobs, our daily duties, our routines and our family and health problems. Genre fiction provides readers with much-needed entertainment and an escape from reality.

But sometimes we read novels in order to hold a mirror up to our own natures and lives. It’s comforting to see that we’re not alone in our struggles to raise a family, in our stumbles in love, in our battles with illnesses beyond our control, or in our efforts to maintain our marriages. Literary fiction in particular,  such as Wally Lamb’s psychological novels and Jonathan Franzen’s formidable realism, enable readers to view themselves inside and out, from multiple perspectives. Whatever stories these great novelists tell, and wherever they may take us, we can identify with their characters and relate to the situations they describe.

My own first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, offers readers a little bit of both worlds: realism with a touch of fantasy. It is the partly autobiographical narrative of my family’s struggles to escape the hardships of communist Romania during the 1980’s. This is a story that few Americans would have lived through, so I enhanced it by adding more spice, the element of fantasy: a spy plot about the inner workings of the Secret Police.

Velvet Totalitarianism will take you to a place that few have visited (communist Romania) and an era that many have forgotten (the Cold War reality of communism). Hopefully, my account of the love and loyalty that united my family is a story that many American readers can identify with. It is a mirror held up to the feelings that bind together any loving family. But the story about the incredible challenges we, along with tens of millions of Eastern Europeans, had to overcome will take you to a far-away corner of the world to remind you of a different era: one that may be gone, but shouldn’t be forgotten. The chapter from Velvet Totalitarianism pasted below offers a little bit of both aspects. It describes (in a fictionalized manner) the family reunion between my mother and I with my father, after our family had been separated for several years by the Romanian Secret police.

Chapter 23 of my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009)

After being tied up in New York City for three days due to a bureaucratic mix-up regarding their entrance visa, Eva and Irina were about to take a plane and meet Andrei in San Francisco. The brunette at the PanAm counter asked Eva very sweetly: “Hi, how are you?

Not accustomed to friendly service, Eva was caught off guard. “Does this girl know me?” she wondered. “Why in the world does she care about how I’m doing?” Since the young woman smiled in an amiable enough manner, however, she decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and answered her question in earnest: “I very tired—we have long flight. Come from Italia. Have not seen her father,” she pointed to Irina, “for near three years. We are from Romania. Imigranti,” she emphasized, in case there was any doubt.

Upon hearing this rather unconventional answer in broken English, the girl’s affable smile was replaced by a glazed-over, disinterested gaze, and from then on she was all business: “That’s nice. May I see your passports please?”

Eva handed them to her.

The girl looked from the photos to Eva and Irina, then asked: “Are you checking any luggage?”

Eva had made some progress on her English, but not enough to fully understand the question: “Yes. Go ahead!” she threw up her arms.

The girl at the counter looked puzzled.

“Our luggage is been checked three times. Already done! We have nothing undeclared inside. Nothing! You can see if you vant…,” Eva invited the girl to rummage through her luggage, as the security guards had done at customs.

“No, I mean do you want to check it on the plane?” the girl clarified, speaking louder for the benefit of her foreign client, who had perfectly good hearing, just poor English comprehension.

Eva still couldn’t fully understand what was going on, but for the sake of expediency and the benefit of the people waiting in line behind her, she acted like she did: “Okay,” she replied. For the next few months, this was to become her stock answer whenever she didn’t understand something in English, since people tended to react better to it than when she said with her heavy accent “I don’t speak English.”

“Here are your tickets for Flight 340 departing for San Francisco from gate 23A,” the girl at the counter handed Eva the plane tickets. She then turned to the next customer in line, reassuming her former friendly persona: “Hello, sir. How are you? Checking any luggage?”

The gentleman in question, an American, already knew the lesson Eva had just learned: “I’m fine, thanks,” he answered flatly, without getting into the details of his personal life. He then said that he had one suitcase to check and showed her his driver’s license.

Eva whispered to her daughter in Romanian: “Strange country, this America… They ask you how you’re doing yet they couldn’t care less about your answer.”

Once they got on the plane, Eva’s mind was fully occupied by her imminent reunion with her husband. She felt butterflies in her stomach. What would Andrei think of her after nearly three years of separation? Would he still love her as much as before? Would they adjust to being a couple once again? And how would he behave with Irina, who had changed from a little girl to a young woman?

For Irina, the idea of finally seeing her father again still felt like an abstraction; an implausible event that blurred the line between dream and reality. Since for her three years of separation was practically an eternity, she remembered only traces of her father, not his whole personality: the way they’d sing together on the way to school; his bright blue, intelligent eyes; the way he always seemed to be in a hurry; his insistence that she do correctly her math and science homework (a task which she always vehemently resisted); his awkward gestures of affection (stroking her head as if she were a puppy); his congruous mixture of indulgence and severity.

Mother and daughter arrived at the San Francisco International Airport around 1:00 a.m. Andrei was supposed to greet them at the gate, but he was nowhere in sight. Rather than going to get their luggage, Eva and Irina waited for him, scrutinizing every thin man with dark hair and blue eyes.

“This is so typical of your father! He’s been in this country for almost three years, and he still can’t manage to find our gate,” Eva said to her daughter, after a nerve racking twenty minute wait and in answer to the latter’s repeated questions, all variations upon the same theme: “Do you see him yet?” “Is he here?” “Is that him?” “What’s taking him so long?” Despite her unsentimental words, Eva’s heart was racing with excitement. In a few moments, the indefinitely postponed future would become an immediate, palpable present.

Suddenly, she thought she spotted her husband: a slight man with a lost gaze, who, at that moment, was looking precisely in the wrong direction. Andrei seemed thinner than ever and his dark hair had turned salt and pepper, but Eva recognized the confused expression he assumed whenever he attempted anything practical.

“Timpitelule! Little Dumdum! We’re here!” she shouted affectionately in Romanian, waving to her husband and feeling relieved that, in spite of his cluelessness, at least he was lost in the right area.

Andrei moved so fast towards his daughter and wife that his face became a blur as he hugged and kissed them on both cheeks, several times, as if not quite trusting his senses, reassuring himself through these repeated embraces that after all these years, they were finally reunited as a family.

“Gogosica mea, my little dumpling,” he said to Irina, his voice cracking with emotion. But the terms of endearment that had worked magic when his daughter was eight no longer had the same effect on her at nearly twelve: “Daddy, I’m not fat! I just ate a few ice creams,” his daughter felt compelled to justify her food frenzy in Italy. She immediately regretted saying that, however, since she had imagined the first words out of her mouth to her father as being slightly more sentimental.

“We ate like pigs in Rome,” Eva excused herself as well for the extra pounds she had put on lately, which, she thought, her husband was bound to notice.

Andrei finally got a chance to look at his wife, who had filled out slightly and looked understandably tired. Nonetheless, to him, she was the most beautiful woman in the world: “You look perfect,” he said and kissed her tenderly on the mouth this time.

“Yuck!” their daughter interrupted this otherwise romantic reunion.

“I hope you haven’t spoiled her in my absence…” Andrei said, looking at Irina with mock sternness.

“If you only knew… You have your work cut out for you,” Eva replied, while Irina tugged at her sleeve looking at her mother with an expression of disapproval.

“What do you mean you? Where do you plan to go?” Andrei asked his wife.

“Who knows? I may also need a three year break from parenting,” Eva replied.

Andrei couldn’t resist the urge to hug his wife once again: “No more breaks for us, Papusica. No more separations. Ever again.”

Eva looked into her husband’s eyes, finally allowing herself the luxury of feeling emotion: “For so long, all I’ve dreamt about was being reunited as a family. With both of our children. With Raducu also.”

Andrei nodded gravely: “I’ve made some progress on that….”

“Did he contact you?” Eva asked.

“No. I would have told you. But I got in touch with that French artist, Jean-Pierre, as soon as you told me about him. I pulled a few strings at the university and found a way of inviting him to give a talk at our Institute for the Humanities. That way we can meet him in person and see how much he may know. But you need to be careful, okay? Don’t spill your beans to him immediately.”

“Oh, I don’t have any beans left to spill, Andreias,” Eva sighed, looking discouraged and weary, as she always did whenever the subject of Radu came up.

“Where’s your luggage?” Andrei changed the subject, recalling they still needed to take care of practical matters.

“I don’t know,” Eva shrugged. “They talk so fast that I couldn’t understand which baggage claim we’re supposed to go to.”

Uncharacteristically, Andrei took charge of the situation. He looked up their baggage claim number and, once they retrieved the luggage, chivalrously insisted on carrying it all by himself. His slight form looked like an ant struggling with giant bread crumbs.

“I have a new car which I think you’ll like,” he told Irina as they made their way through the crowd to the parking lot.

Irina gazed with undisguised admiration at all the large sedans they passed by. Her father stopped in front of a tiny, European-looking vehicle: a 1980 metallic blue Horizon. Despite its unimpressive size, Irina’s eyes sparkled with delight. The car was her favorite color, the kind she had only dreamt of: light blue with silver sparkles which shimmered like diamonds under the parking lot lights. Irina felt confident that even her doll, Greta Barbie, would like it.

“I love it!” she declared, sitting down in the back and bouncing up and down on the cushy seats, touching with open hands their soft, velvety covers.

“What luxury!” Eva said, equally in awe of the modest, economy-size vehicle. Having prepared in advance an explanation why he couldn’t yet afford a Mercedes, Andrei felt relieved that his family was so easy to please. Maybe they’d also overlook the bullet hole in the door of the cheap apartment he had rented for the summer in Berkeley.

“I didn’t quite understand your explanation on the phone. How come we’re not going directly to Ann Arbor?” Eva asked.

“This spring quarter I’m Visiting Associate Professor at an even better university. It’s called the University of California at Berkeley,” Andrei declared with pride.

“Berkelei?” Eva repeated, unimpressed. Back in Romania, she had only heard of Harvard.

“That’s right.”

“If this Berkelei’s so smart, then how come they didn’t hire you permanently?”

“I suppose I haven’t made an important enough breakthrough in physics. I was too busy struggling to get you and Irina out of Romania,” her husband responded with an affectionate smile. He felt elated. After all these years, his spunky, pragmatic wife hadn’t changed one bit.

“You mean you’re blaming us for your failures again?” Eva wanted to know.

“My biggest success is reuniting with my family,” Andrei replied with an uncharacteristic sentimentality which, his wife surmised, would wear off in a couple of days.

In spite of her sharp tongue, Eva’s eyes twinkled with warmth. She placed her hand on top of his, which was holding, by force of habit, the automatic gear shift.

Andrei drove fast, as usual. Eva scolded him, calling him an Italian race car driver, and warned him that he’d be pulled over by the police if he didn’t slow down, also as usual. Irina looked out the window, mesmerized. The Golden Gate Bridge shimmered with its bright yellow lights, like a garland illuminating the darkness of the night. The skyline of San Francisco flashed before her eyes, looking exactly like the girl had envisioned–extrapolating from the American movies she had seen—only even more shinny, beautiful and inviting. Colorful billboards displayed alluring women in sexy positions lying next to what looked like bottles of tuika (vodka). These Americans must drink even more than we do, Irina speculated. Her parents kept on talking excitedly in Romanian. Irina basked in their familiar presence, as the distant past folded almost seamlessly unto the present, leaving only the faint scars of long years of separation, which neither the present nor the future could erase.

Claudia Moscovici,

November 16, 2010 Posted by | Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Jonathan Franzen, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love, psychological fiction, Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism, Wally Lamb | , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Velvet Totalitarianism: When Love Triumphs Over Oppression

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: The WOW! Factor in Contemporary Fiction

You probably already know about him. Time Magazine has recently published his picture on its cover, calling him the “Great American Novelist.” I have just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, and my visceral reaction was: WOW! Which led me to think about the importance of the WOW! factor: not just in Franzen’s novel, but in contemporary fiction in general.

Let me preface my remarks by stating the obvious: it’s not easy to publish literary fiction in this country. Literary fiction writers like Jonathan Franzen, Wally Lamb, Jeffrey Eugenides and a handful of others have to compete in the publishing world with brand name authors: political personages like Sarah Palin or pop celebrities like Madonna, who generate controversy and attract media coverage, which in turn boosts book sales. They also compete with genre fiction writers, such as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, who provide entertainment for the general public. But literary fiction also remains, above all, an aesthetic genre. At its best, it delivers strong characterizations, an individual style—as unique as the fingerprints of its authors—psychological depth, cohesive, well-balanced structures and outstanding plots, full of twists and surprises.

Furthermore, literary fiction is not easily digestible: it requires a lot of patience, thought and, since such novels probe into our natures and motivations, a not always pleasurable introspection.  Which is perhaps why –along with poetry and independent films–literary fiction tends to get great critical reviews but doesn’t usually sell well. So when an author manages to write literary fiction that is top-notch quality and appeals to the general public, the only way I can explain this magic is through that je ne sais quoi, the WOW! factor.

Granted, Jonathan Franzen had a lot going for him: Ophrah’s attention (the mere presence in Oprah’s Book  Club makes any book sell well); an outstanding literary agent (Susan Golomb) and the support of a publisher who is known for publishing top literary fiction (Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux). But talking about all of this “cultural capital” in Franzen’s corner really begs the question. Because his new novel wasn’t chosen at random: it really deserves  the endorsements it gets.

Freedom is, first of all, a family epic. It traces the lives of two generations of Americans: Patty and Walter Berglund and their children, Joey and Jessica. The novel offers a masterful sketch of two eras in American culture, not just the portrait of a family. For additional interest and spice, there’s the drama and tension of a love triangle. Patty becomes infatuated with her husband’s best friend, the renegade musician, Richard Katz. In its vivid portrayals of the love story between Patty and Walter and the affair between Patty and Richard, Freedom shows us the difference between infatuation—with its long-term obsessions and explosive, but short-lived sexual excitement–and love, with its combination of loyalty, disappointment and real-life challenges.

The novel’s tension is maintained not just by the drama of the plot, but also by the depth and balance of its characterizations. The main characters function as each other’s foils: the moral, straight-laced Walter is a foil for Richard, the egotistic musician, whose outlook reminds me of Ivan’s famous saying in The Brothers Karamazov: But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.” Similarly, Patty, the competitive housewife prone to depression is counterbalanced by her pragmatic, even-keeled daughter, Jessica. Finally, the doting, self-effacing neighbor’s daughter, Connie, functions as the perfect complement and foil to the outgoing and self-confident Joey. Their youthful love story reveals the symbiotic relationship between idolizer and idol, which could prompt analyses of the workings of narcissism and co-dependency, but which also remains more touching and unique than popular psychology. The characterizations in this novel are so compelling that it’s as if the author immersed himself into mindset of each character, a process reminiscent of Flaubert’s saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Which brings me to my initial point: Freedom definitely captures the WOW! factor. For me, the WOW! factor happens when a writer  appeals to  the greatest number of readers without sacrificing anything in quality (characterization, plot, structure or style).

As a novelist and literary critic, I’ve been an avid reader of contemporary fiction for many years. Novels like Franzen’s Freedom, which magically combine mass appeal with aesthetic qualities, remind me of why if you make it as a novelist in the U.S., you make it internationally.  To keep afloat in a very competitive and rapidly changing environment, American publishers demand  mass appeal  from all of their  writers.  Meeting the highest aesthetic standards, as Franzen’s Freedom does, is just an added bonus:  that unforgettable and unmistakable WOW! factor.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

November 10, 2010 Posted by | book review, book review of Freedom, book review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Claudia Moscovici, Freedom: A Novel, Jonathan Franzen, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: The WOW! Factor in Contemporary Fiction

An Engaging Comic Epic: Book Review of Eugenides’ Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides called his second novel, Middlesex, “a comic epic” (of his Greek-American cultural heritage). Yet he went far beyond–and deeper than–ethnic humor, outshining popular movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which by comparison seem little more than cultural stereotypes.  His novel relies upon social and historical research, a traditional Aristotelian plot with tragic tension and an interesting reversal of fortune, and characterizations that are plausible, endearing and humorous (inspired in part by his family members).

Middlesex is a comic epic with a modern twist, since Cal Stephanides, the narrator of the novel,  could be described as a (biological) mystery wrapped in an enigma. His case, similar to Herculine Barbin’s (popularized by the cultural critic Michel Foucault),  is strange enough to be found in the pages of Dr. Peter Luce’s study, “Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites.” With wit and flavor, Cal recounts the story of his life, beginning with his immigrant grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, moving on to his parents, and the unexpected twists and turns of his own gender transformations. Middlesex is a sharp contemporary novel written with a gentle, Chehovian touch, which offers an endearing and unforgettable picture of three generations of an American family.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

November 7, 2010 Posted by | book review, book review of Middlesex, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Jeffrey Eugenides, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Middlesex, Middlesex: A Novel | , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on An Engaging Comic Epic: Book Review of Eugenides’ Middlesex