Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Taking the Bus from Stockholm to New Delhi

Swedes on the way to India. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974. 
I was waiting for the bus that was to take me on a 7,000-mile ride from Stockholm to New Delhi. It was September 3rd, 1974 and I was three months shy of 21. Joining me was my friend Elisabeth and 39 other young travelers, half of which were women. Around us were parents and friends who were there to see us off on our three-and-a-half month adventure. Eventually, two weathered, blue Scania buses – dubbed Bill and Bull – arrived and parked on the railway overpass by the northern entrance of Stockholm’s Central Station.

We said our goodbyes, picked up our luggage and stepped onto the buses. There were seats in the front, but those in the back had been removed and replaced with particle boards and topped with thin foam mattresses. Elisabeth and I chose a bed on the left side of Bill and made ourselves as comfortable as possible in what was to become our home for the next six weeks.

I brought a large, light-blue and ultra-light Fjällräven backpack that had my red sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of the frame. I had strategically packed the bare minimum of clothes and personal items, a couple of books for the road, notebooks, a thermos flask, a water bottle of metal, malaria pills and charcoal tablets for diarrhea. A burlap bag from an army surplus store held my two cameras, a Rollei 35 and a Nikon F with a flash and two lenses, 35 and 200 mm. The side pockets of my backpack were stuffed with 55 rolls of film – 30 Kodak Tri-X, 10 Kodak Plus-X and 15 Kodachrome II for slides. My passport and $400 U.S. dollars in the form of American Express traveler’s cheques rested in a thin nylon pouch under my shirt along with $100 dollars in cash.

That was it.

I didn’t own a credit card, and we had no mobile phones in those days – not to mention no email, no World Wide Web, no Wi-Fi, no Skype and no Facebook. MP3s were not around yet, nor were portable Walkman cassette players, so we had to make do with the radio in the bus – that was if the signal allowed it.

Back then, the world was analog.

Our path to India. The journey after Amritsar is on a separate map.
The first morning on the road. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974. 
Somewhere in Eastern Turkey. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.

Forty years have passed since I stepped onto that bus, and as I look back, I ask myself: What was I thinking? The truth is that I didn't think. I was young and naïve and oblivious to any danger to myself and my friend. And by the way, the whole thing was her idea. She had heard of a guy in her hometown of Sundsvall who took people to India for a very good price.

Now that I’m a parent of two sons, ages 23 and 20 I also reflect on my parents' role in this journey. What were they thinking? I can’t recall any words of caution or doubt. The only plausible explanation I can come up with today is that they thought it was a good idea for us to see the world, and that they probably took comfort in the fact that the journey to and from New Delhi was an arranged tour, and not just us hitchhiking to Asia.

After all, this was not my first trip. I learned to walk in France on my family’s first car trip to Bretagne and southern France when I was less than a year old. Along with my parents and older brother Ingemar, we road in a Citroen B11 that pulled a small red and yellow caravan. That was 1954. In 1958, my family, which now included my little brother Jan, on camping trip through Europe in a Volkswagen Beatle, which somehow or another fit two adults, three young children, a tent – and a sandbag under the hood to prevent the car from blowing off the autobahn if the winds got too strong. And in 1967, they took us on a seven-week journey in an Opel hatchback pulling a new caravan that my father had traded a painting for. We drove through Germany toward Paris, and then followed Route Napoleon across the Alps to the city of Menton on the French Riviera.

*

In the spring of 1948, my parents boarded a small freighter for a two week sea voyage from Sweden’s west coast to Paris, via Rouen. It was only two and a half years after the end of World War II, and Europe still lay smoldering. My father wrote in his diary about the eerie view of rusty and blown-up wrecks in the River Seine as they approached Rouen. After a month studying and exploring the art scene in Paris, they continued by train to Switzerland and then Italy.

My grandparents had pulled up their roots several times to start over in new places. My maternal grandmother, whose husband had abandoned her and their eight children, encouraged two of her seven surviving children to move to America in 1946. My mom told me that grandma didn't want her only son to be enlisted in case there was another war. And then there were the million Swedes who left for America in the late 19th and early 20th century. They may have been afraid, but they didn't let fear stop them. What were they thinking? Maybe they didn't think much about it at all, like me when I was 20. They just stepped onto the bus.

*

Taking a bus from Europe to India was one of those things you could do in the mid-seventies.

*

We were a mix of university students, nurses, workers, teachers, and young people in search of self, or simply curious about the world. We were not hippies, even though a few of us talked about smoking pot while sitting on a roof somewhere in Nepal. The trip was just a trip, an opportunity that had presented itself to us and one that we took, but we were also part of a growing stream of European and American overland travelers heading for Afghanistan, India and Nepal. The British travel writer Rory MacLean wrote in his "Magic Bus – On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India" (2006) that 90,000 visitors arrived in Afghanistan every year by the mid-seventies. Most of them would continue on to India and Nepal.

The name Hippie Trail evokes images of the fabled Silk Road, which had attracted adventurers, spies and explorers in the early 20th century, but was actually neither a road nor mainly about silk. It was the German geographer von Richthofen who in 1877 came up with the name “Seidenstraße” as he explored a possible path for a railway between Germany and China. There was however, never a road stretching from Istanbul to China or India, but a series of networks of trade routes over land or over water, where merchants, diplomats, explorers, bandits, warriors and pilgrims had travelled for two, maybe three thousand years. Marco Polo knew of no Silk Road, and neither did the Nestorian monk and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma who also travelled in the 13th century, but in the opposite direction, from Beijing (then called Khanbalik) to Jerusalem, Baghdad, Sicily, Rome, Paris, Bordeaux and Genoa before settling in Baghdad.

The land routes from Europe to Asia lost their importance when the Ming Dynasty closed the doors on foreign trade and with the European discoveries of new sea routes to Asia in the 16th century. However, geopolitics and the growing interest in oil and natural gas made the area hot again in the 19th century, although not so much for trade as for imperial rivalries like the British and Russian “Great Game” over Persia and Afghanistan.

When the British adventurer and writer Robert Byron traveled through Persia and Afghanistan in 1933-34, he found the “Silk Road” in a sorry state (“The Road to Oxiana,” 1937) with vanishing roads and collapsed bridges. Jan Myrdal, the Swedish writer, painted a similar picture a quarter century later in “Kulturers korsväg: en bok om Afghanistan” (1960) and then in “Gates to Asia – A Diary from a Long Journey” (1972), two books based on a series of journeys he did with his wife Gun Kessle in a Citroën 2CV.

The first postwar wave of overland travelers to India were inspired by the Existentialists, Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but it was only a trickle compared to the second wave, which started in the late 1960s and peaked around the time we drove East through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. This wave was broader and more diverse, consisting of young people who had come of age in the wake of the social and cultural uproars of the 1960s and early 1970s, the age of rock & roll, sexual liberation, the Vietnam war, May 68 in France and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. And everything was televised.

Underneath it all – at least in Western Europe and North America – was a search for something else, a rebellion against the parental generation’s nervous conformism and materialism. Many young people had joined political and anti-war movements, while others turned inwards, exploring drugs, new religions and meditation. The Beatles discovered transcendental meditation in 1966-67 and visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in February, 1968. Before long, India was swarming with youth from Europe and America.

I doubt that any of us riding Bill and Bull had heard of the Beat generation, although we were familiar with the hippie movement. For me, India was a challenge rather than a solution to any existential problem. It is true that I too had walked around in Jesus sandals in ninth grade, considering myself a “Mod,” a Swedish term for long-haired young men who liked rock music. But I never saw myself as a hippie, a term that I associated with an apolitical lifestyle of drugs and navel gazing. I was politically active on the left and saw India as a poor country with extreme social and economic contrasts; a country that had been plundered by the British colonialists and now was held back by Western imperialism, religions and the caste system.

*

We were lucky to take the trip when we did, because the Hippie Trail would soon be shut down, or at least very dangerous following a pro-Soviet coup in Kabul in April 1978 and the 1979 fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran. When we travelled through Afghanistan, things were relatively calm under Mohammad Daoud, who in July, 1973 toppled his cousin and brother-in-law Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had been king of Afghanistan since 1933.

*

Before Inter-Rail, kids hitch-hiked across Europe and America. I myself hitchhiked 300 miles to visit a girl I had met in March, 1972 on a homeward-bound ferry from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and in the summer of 1973, I hitchhiked from the city of Kalmar on Sweden’s Southeast coast to Copenhagen, Denmark, which was the starting point for a month-long solo journey across Europe by train. My dad gave me a ride to a drop-off point on the European Highway E4, where I subsequently stuck out my thumb.

That trip in 1973 was a journey without a purpose and I set out alone as my friends all bailed on me. Like tens of thousands of other kids, I took advantage of the new Inter-Rail Card, which made the European railway system accessible to so many young people. All I had with me was my passport, my $70 Inter-Rail ticket, traveler’s cheques, my backpack and my Nikon. The trip would take me to Rome and Venice, and then back north and west along France’s South coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, where I took a ferry to Île de Ré, and then spent a week hitchhiking to seven small towns on the island hoping to meet the girl I had met on the boat from Leningrad. She had dumped me over the phone while I was in the army, but kept teasing me and before I set out on the journey, she suggested that I meet her on Île de Ré. She never showed, but that was as well. I befriended an entire chamber orchestra after they gave me a lift and they invited me to join them for a family dinner. From La Rochelle, I headed to Paris and then Calais, where I took a ferry to Dover and spent a week looping around England and Scotland before heading back to Sweden. I travelled with the wantonness of a 20-year old, letting the road show me the way.

Originally, I had planned for a second Inter-Rail trip that summer, but didn't have enough money to go through with it, so I took a job as a laborer at Standard Radio, an American-owned manufacturer, dipping electronic circuit boards in a series of acid baths. The pay was good, but the monotonous job hurt my back and so I quit after a couple of months and decided to study. My friend from high school, Radja, suggested that we go to Uppsala University, because he thought it was nicer than Stockholm University, which was housed in six famously ice-blue office-like buildings. I signed up for Political Science and managed to get a dorm room at Rackarbergsgatan 44, just five minutes’ walk from the university. My friend Radja, whose dad by the way was from India, ended up signing up at Stockholm University.

It was during the new student introduction  that I spotted Elisabeth. We were shown around the University and Skytteanum, the 18th Century building with oak beams in the ceiling that was home to the political science department. She had a pretty face, long dark hair – and most importantly, she returned my looks. It didn’t take long before we were an item, although she never really acknowledged it. By April we had decided to take a bus to India.

*

The tickets were cheap – 2,300 Swedish kronor (about $400) per person – and the fact that we would sleep on the bus saved us the cost of staying at hotels, but we still had to prepare for the journey, purchase film and other supplies, have enough money for food, plus local travel and accommodations after being dropped-off in in India. And that was money that we didn’t have, so we visited the local government employment office in Uppsala and checked out their lists. There were a number of jobs in the hospital sector but they paid badly and we only had the summer to save, but then we discovered a job at Farmek, a coop meat processor. They had a large slaughter house and offered better pay than the hospitals, so we visited the factory and were hired after each of us had been put through a two-hour long interview. For the next three months we earned a piece work rate of about 17 kronor ($3.00) per hour. It was hard work, but we persisted and earned the money we needed.

*

There is at least one more reason why we ventured out on such an adventure. I can’t remember being afraid of many things as I grew up in Sweden. I felt safe, and that was true for most of the world. The only place that was kind of scary was America, which seemed to be a very violent place where people and presidents got shot in the street. Once I moved to America, most of that fear dissipated, but on some level I still feel safer in Europe. Sweden was a small, relatively homogenous society during the 1960s and 1970s, and Swedes tended to be “open” to exploring the world. The relatively egalitarian Swedish society also made it less important for parents to control who their children played with or dated. When I compare my experience from almost three decades in the United States with that of my old friends, I have noticed that they let their children venture out on their own much earlier without worrying too much, compared to American parents. Teenage sons and daughters take off on long journeys to Australia, California, Brazil and Spain as if it were nothing. Is it because they live in a small and fairly safe place or belong to my generation, which came of age after 1968, an era where our parents had lost track of whatever sense of time they had been able to rebuild after WWII?

I’m not sure.

*

1974. It was the year when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest, an event that most people remember much better than a more important, but less flashy event, which occurred at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, namely the first scanning of a barcode. In May, India detonated its first nuclear weapon, the "Smiling Buddha." The military junta in Greece (which had grabbed power 1967 in a coup d’état and was backed by the United States despite its systematic use of torture) staged a coup on Cyprus in July, which triggered a Turkish invasion of the island; causing a fiasco for the generals that quickly ended the dictatorship. In the United States, President Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment for Watergate. The Vietnam War was still raging and we had no idea that it would soon be over. Meanwhile China was preoccupied with an intense ideological struggle between two 2,000 year old schools of thought, the Confucian and the Legalist, a campaign that actually was a cover for a power struggle initiated by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her three radical partners in the "Gang of Four."

*

It is now August, 2014 and I am trying to channel my younger self; a task that requires a fair amount of intellectual, emotional and factual digging – an archaeology of a mind that was once me. This is hard work as I simply don’t remember as much as I would like to remember. I can’t rewind the movie and watch it again. There are certain things and events that I do remember, as they have latched on to some mental structure, or were dramatic or exceptional enough to reinforce enough synaptic connections. But most things you do and see seem to be stored in places where the next wave, or the one after that, washes them away. This is why I had to rely on external artifacts like historians and archaeologists do.

*

My digging began with a search for three large maps, one of Europe, one of the Middle East, and one of India. I had marked the bus route on them with a marker, but I only found the map of Europe. Next I re-read the two black notebooks where I had taken notes from books and magazines, and kept a diary, but like many diaries they were filled in inverse proportion to how much was happening and how good I felt. Add to that a couple of my letters home that my mom had saved and gave to me after my father's death in 1983.

My main tool for remembering would be the photos I had taken during the trip, but I would have to scan them into my computer one by one, so I invested in a new flatbed scanner that had advanced software and could scan prints, negatives and slides. It was still a laborious process since my color positives were mounted between two pieces of thin glass, but this new machine made it a bit easier. I had once read in a photography magazine that glass frames protected the pictures from dust and scratches. I can tell you this is true. What it didn't say however, was that the glass itself would collect dust and oil over the decades, forcing me to take each frame apart, remove the images one by one, and mount them again in frames without glass.

Next it was time to do a rough sort and enumerate the digitized pictures. Every photo had then to be reviewed and retouched, dust removed, scratches fixed, shadows lightened, highlights darkened, and colors corrected. One of the hardest tasks was to organize the digitized photos. I had marked the color slides with small stick-on numbers, but this didn't tell me where the pictures were taken. This was less of a problem for the first part of the journey as it was easy to tell whether a photo was from Dubrovnik, Istanbul, or Herat, but that was not the case with the slides from India.

There were frustrating instances where I couldn't figure out where I had taken a certain picture. For example, I had a series of photos of a caravan passing in front of an old fortress. I knew that I had shot the photos between Kabul and Kandahar, but I couldn't locate the fort. I visited my local library and bookstores searching for picture books, or at least a guidebook, but they didn't have any. I searched the web for images from Afghanistan, and used Google Earth to hover over the road while looking in all directions, but as amazing as it was to retrace my trip virtually, I could not find the fort. I posted pictures on Facebook, hoping that my friends who had been to Afghanistan more recently would recognize it, but they said that they had taken planes as these roads were not safe.

I also tried the Facebook page "The Afghanistan I Know," where a man suggested the fort in Ghazni, and posted a photo he had taken in the 1960s. But my photos didn't match Google's satellite images of that fort. However, a few weeks later I got a message from a Swedish friend who lives across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. “It is Qalat in the Zabul Province,” he wrote. He knew because his American wife's son had been stationed there, and had immediately recognized the fort from the photos.

*

My first memory of the trip, which I only recovered thanks to my photos, was from the first morning on the road. The buses were parked along a highway in Denmark and we used water from the water tanks to brush our teeth and wash our faces. We must have bought some breakfast before we continued into Germany. The German autobahn is certainly efficient, but does not generate much in terms of memory. My next memory, also triggered from a photo, is from inside a large beer hall, probably in Munich, and the next is from the Austrian town Villach, where I fought valiantly in broken German complaining about an under-cooked chicken dish that Elisabeth had been served.

*

The next stop after Villach was Ljubljana in Slovenia, which today lies in Slovenia, but this was fifteen years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia. Josip Broz Tito, who had led the resistance against the Nazi occupation, and then fought off Stalin’s agents and military threats a few years later, was still in charge. I complained in my notebook that it was hard to keep up with politics as I only occasionally could find English language newspapers, but I did learn of a conspiracy against Tito, with Soviet maneuvering in the background hoping to get a more “friendly” government.

Yugoslavia’s economic system was an unorthodox mix of capitalism and socialism that many European radicals looked upon with suspicion. It was a visibly poor country, but one that allowed workers to seek work in other countries and encouraged tourism. It was also relatively open to the West. I noted in my diary that they sold Coca Cola and pornographic papers in the newspaper kiosks, and that a movie theater in Ljubljana played “Goldfinger.”

Opatija, a small town just north of Rijeka, was our first stop at the Adriatic Sea. It was morning and customers were inspecting crates full of fish that the fishermen had unloaded from their boats. A little later we were back on the buses heading south on a road that was winding its way through a rocky landscape that at times looked completely dead. In the distant, the Dinaric Alps seemed to be floating in a blue haze. The thermometer in the bus read 100° F.

*

The landscape became more green and lush as we approached Dubrovnik. We entered the city through the Pile Gate and fell in love with the old city as we explored its narrow cobblestone alleys. In the evening we happened upon a discotheque located in the ramparts facing the harbor. The place was crowded with young people. Cool guys in tight-fitting clothes were shaking to disco strobe lights in narrow, smoky and dark rooms. The heavily made-up girls were trying hard to fulfill their roles as subservient sex objects. Most couldn't find a place on the dance floor, or dared not go, but instead sat there half-drunk and staring. Just like home.

The buses left the shore just north of Albania, and took us inland to Titograd and Skopje, the latter an ancient city that had been destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1963. We only made short stops, but our impression of the area, which is now part of the Republic of Macedonia, was that it was poor and unwelcoming. As we crossed the border to Greece, we were welcomed by bouzouki music coming in over the bus radio.

Our next stop was Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We parked next to a street market where a hefty butcher in a white apron slammed his meat cleaver so hard that one could hear the thuds from the chopping board echo against the walls. Chunks of meat, turkeys and chickens were hanging in front of the small shop. A cacophony of sounds bounced off the walls as the sellers advertised their products and prices. Men of all ages, but only men, sat at a café as an old woman dressed in black hurried by with a loaf of bread in her hand. People were generally friendly and asked where we were from, and where we were going. They smiled when they heard that we were Swedes and not Americans, but their smiles vanished when I told them that we were on the way to Istanbul.  One butcher made a sign with his hand signaling that the Turks would cut off our heads. Istanbul was a dangerous place, they said.

Driving east from Thessaloniki meant another step down the socio-economic ladder. Instead of asphalt, the roads were now covered with gravel. We passed through small villages with covered women, donkey carts and minarets. Here people were looking curiously at our buses which by now had climbed in status and did not look bad at all.

It so happened that I revisited Istanbul in the summer of 2014, but this time I arrived on a luxury cruise ship. We passed the narrow strait of the Dardanelles and sailed across the Sea of Marmara when we began to notice a vast city landscape on Istanbul’s European and Asian side. It took a long time before we got close enough to the old Istanbul with its mosques and minarets.

What a stark contrast to the first time I arrived in this city.

Back in 1974, we were sitting in front of the bus, as the road climbed and descended one soft hill after another revealing only a thickening city landscape, and then the sensation when we passed a hill that finally revealed the enormous city laid out in front of us. I still remember the final approach as if we were sucked into a maelstrom of traffic that got more and more intense. I also remember that there were lots and lots of large American cars. As we saw Istanbul from a street level, we didn't quite know where we were, just that we had parked near the Hippodrome a few steps from the Blue Mosque. But when I in 2014 overlooked the city from the ninth deck of our ship, which had docked at Karaköy near the Galata Bridge, I could calmly take in the whole.

Street scene from Istanbul. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 1974.
Istanbul's old town seen from the ship. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Photo: Hans Sandberg, 2014.
Note. The text above is an excerpt from a book that I am writing about my 1974 overland journey to India.  


Here is a link to my photo book 
An Overland Journey from Sweden to India (1974)
that I have published online.

Copyright: Hans Sandberg, August 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

An ad for Knausgaard's My Struggle
in the New York Times Book Review, June 1, 2014.
Being a Swede living abroad, you have a soft spot for people and things Swedish. IKEA, Volvo, Saab, Ericsson, knäckebröd, Västerbottensost, lingonsylt - they all have taken on an additional meaning, and this is also true for Swedish (and Nordic too) artists, scientists, actors, and writers. When Stieg Larsson was all the rage, I felt a certain pride, but then I read his first book and was embarrassed. Not that I had expected great literature, but it was not even a great thriller. More like a Swedish Dan Brown.

Fortunately, the Larsson wave did eventually peter out, but now we have another big wave of Scandinavian origin. It's of course the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume monster of an autobiography is compared to Marcel Proust's Recherche. Could this be true? It would be fantastic, but reading the reviews I couldn't help feeling what I felt when I read all those reviews of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. There was something funny about the whole thing, as if the new literary emperor had no clothes on, but nobody dared to come out and say it.

Until now.

William Deresiewicz, an American literary critic, has written a devastating review of My Struggle for The Nation magazine, where he also asks why so many authors and critics have fallen for Knausgaard's self-obsessed naïveté, taking it for honesty.
There is also the question of what constitutes the real and how to represent it. Knausgaard is invariably praised for his realism—indeed, his “hyperrealism.” “Come with me,” Smith says his book implies, “come into this life…. It might not be pretty—but this is life.” Is it really, though? I don’t mean that other people’s lives are more interesting than Knausgaard’s. I’m willing to stipulate that most of what we do, most of the time, is pretty banal. The issue is more about realism than reality. Is an exhaustive scan of the visual surface, rendered in colorless language, really the best way to represent “life”? I happen to be reading Updike at the moment. Here is his description of a young woman in an unfamiliar surrounding: “She is serious, a serious small-faced animal sniffing out her new lair.” We don’t just see her; we see into her. Here is Knausgaard’s description of a girl he liked at age 11, his first serious crush, as emotion-saturated an experience as one can imagine: “She wasn’t very tall and she was wearing a pink jacket, a light-blue skirt, and thin, white stockings. Her nose was small, her mouth large, and she had a little cleft in her chin.” And that’s the first time that he catches sight of her, no less. I’m almost ready to fall in love myself.
Is Knausgaard’s description more realistic than Updike’s? Does it bring us closer to “life”? Or does it rather leave us on the outside of life? The term “hyperrealism” derives from the visual arts, where it refers to paintings that are designed to look like photographs. To call writing like Knausgaard’s hyperrealistic, to enthrone it as the apotheosis of realism, is to cede reality to the camera. It is to surrender everything that makes literature distinct from the photographic and the televisual: its ability to tell us what things look like, not to the eye, but to the mind, to the heart. What they feel like; what they mean. The camera believes in surfaces, but the real is more than what we can see, more than what we can hear, smell, taste and touch.
The modernists were also realists, in the truest sense of the term. They were also searching for techniques to represent the real, only their conception of that entity was somewhat more expansive. It was Virginia Woolf who said, about the realism of her own day—so complete in its detail that if all its “figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour”—that the one thing that escapes is life itself. Eugenides believes that Knausgaard “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Smith has said she needs his books “like crack.” Lethem calls him “a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint.” How sad it is to imagine that some of our most prominent novelists look at My Struggle and think, That’s the book I wish I could have written. How depressing to suppose that just as modernism culminated in Joyce, Proust and Woolf, the literature of our own time has been leading up to… Knausgaard.

And as for comparing Knausgaard to Proust, Deresiewicz emphatically says no. Rather than a deep analysis of the self and memory, it is more of a reality TV show in print.
With its subject and size, My Struggle has invariably drawn comparisons to Proust’s Recherche, the great prose epic of the self remembered—comparisons the book itself does much to invite. But here are some things that the Recherche contains that Min Kamp does not: wit, satire, comedy, verbal and symbolic complexity, psychological penetration, sociological reach, the ability to render complicated situations, a genuine engagement with the subtleties of memory, the power to convey the slow unfolding of the self. And here is something that Proust did that Knausgaard did not: he took his time. The Recherche, only fractionally longer than Min Kamp, was labored at for thirteen years. About a page a day of finished prose appears to be the speed limit for a sustained work of competent literary fiction. You want to write shit? Write fast.
Smith sees Knausgaard’s attention to the world around him as a rebuke to today’s distractibility. But his work is all too typical of our technology-assisted culture. The novel strikes me as a giant selfie, a 3,600-page blogologue. Like mumblecore or reality television, it’s premised on the notion that all you need to do is point your camera at the world and shoot. Like all these genres and more, it tells us that breadth is preferable to depth, that art is best created in a spirit of hurried amateurism, that the only valid subject is the self. 

Having read half a dozen reviews, Deresiewicz rings true.

I suspect that if H.C. Andersen had lived, he would have seen Knausgaard as a Scandinavian househusband desperately seeking social status through self-obsessed “reality writing.”

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

I think not!  


William Deresiewicz: Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece? (The Nation, June 2, 2014)
James Wood: Total Recall (The New Yorker, August 13, 2012)
Ben Lerner: Each Cornflake (The London Review of Books, May 22, 2014)
Rivka Galchen: Man With Many Qualities (New York Times, May 23, 2014)
Dwight Garner: The Bad Father, and Other Childhood Memories (New York Times, May 27, 2014)
Zadie Smith: Man vs. Corpse (New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Two Englishmen Who Walked to Mughal India

I'm reading about early travelers to India, and they were actually quite a few.
John Mildenhall (or Midnall) set out from Constantinople (Istanbul) to Aleppo in the March of 1600, and then left with an entourage of 600 people, heading for Lahore in today's Pakistan (then part of the Moghul Empire) where he arrived in 1603. He was a bit of a trickster and tried to rip off the British East India Company, which however manage to capture him and bring him to Isfahan in Iran, but let go (without his merchandise though). He returned to India, where he initially was successful.
"Mildenhall reached the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and held discussions with him. However, he was regarded as an outlaw by the British East India Company whose exports to the Levant he had diverted to India. Moreover, his journey was not sponsored by the Company. Hence, the British East India Company sent Sir William Hawkins to India in pursuit of Mildenhall and to declare all his dealings null and void." (Wikipedia)  He got sick and died in 1614. He was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Agra, a city that is best known for the Taj Mahal.

Thomas Coryat (c. 1577 – 1617) was another long-distance walker from England. In 1608 he traveled around Europe, often by foot, and collected his experiences in a book with the ironic title Coryat's Crudities hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Italy, &c (1611). Coryat was an educated man and managed to land a job "court jester" for Prince Henry, the oldest son of James I. The book was so well received and he wrote a second one the same year, Coryats Crambe, or his Coleworte twice Sodden.

In 1612 he walked to India by way of Greece, Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan, which in those days belonged to the Mughal Empire. He never had a chance to write a book about this his fantastic journey, because in 1617 he died of dysentery in Gujarat. His letters were however published in 1616 under the title Greetings from the Court of the Great Mogul. In 1625, some more of his writings were published as part of 
Samuel Purchas's book Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others.

Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Technologists Mad About the Future, or Just Mad?

Bryan Appleyard delivers a hard-hitting critique of technooptimism the New Statesman, reaching back to the 1950s and tracing the madness up through Google's Larry Page and Ray Kurzweil who Google hired as a resident futurologist of sorts.

The reality, as the revelations of the National Security Agency’s near-universal surveillance show, is that technology is just as likely to unleash hell as any other human enterprise. But the primary Ted faith is that the future is good simply because it is the future; not being the present or the past is seen as an intrinsic virtue. 
Bratton, when I spoke to him, described some of the futures on offer as “anthrocidal” – indeed, Kurzweil’s singularity is often celebrated as the start of a “post-human” future. We are the only species that actively pursues and celebrates the possibility of its own extinction.
Bratton was also very clear about the religiosity that lies behind Tedspeak. “The eschatological theme within all this is deep within the American discourse, a positive and negative eschatology,” he said. “There are a lot of right-wing Christians who are obsessed with the Mark of the Beast. It’s all about the Antichrist . . . Maybe it’s more of a California thing – this messianic articulation of the future is deep within my culture, so maybe it is not so unusual to me.”
Appleyeard's essay echoes of Evgeny Morozov's critique of irrational exuberance among the digiterati and is refreshing, even when it oversimplifies like in its critique of TED. Technology is always a two-edged sword, and so is TED. We love it for the global learning and debate it made possible, but we fear its potential to evolve into an opraesque secular mega-church.

Read the whole thing here:

Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians
Bryan Appleyard is the author of “The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Let There Be Hyperlinks, a World Wide Web of Hyperlinks, He Said



For my Swedish readers, here is a link to an interview I did with Tim Berners-Lee back in 1996.

Tim Berners-Lee: Webbens tillväxt var viktigare än vinsten (1996)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

McCain Pops-Up and and Asks Obama to Show Putin All his Cards

Senator John McCain -- a Republican senator from Arizona, and predictable political pop-up doll that seldom misses a chance to call for our attention -- is "deeply concerned" that Putin's expansion could continue.

"President Obama said that Russia would face 'costs' if it intervened militarily in Ukraine," McCain said. "It is now essential for the President to articulate exactly what those costs will be and to take steps urgently to impose them." (CNN)
Yes, Mr. President, why didn't you put all your cards on the table immediately, and why haven't you evicted the Russian troops already?

Seriously, if Putin's aggression wasn't bad enough, now we will have to endure the Republican choir mocking the president, and we will hear calls for military mobilization and preparations for war from the neocons, who have felt rather lonely since W deflated. Not so sure though about the Tea Party. Will they embrace a new war even if it means more deficit spending (or more taxes)?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Have a Wonderful Day Writes Barnes & Noble’s Eliza, Who Is Not Quite "Her"

My wife Lisa bought me the audiobook version of Miguel de Cervantes’ wonderful novel Don Quixote for Christmas. The recording was based on Emily Grossman’s excellent translation, which I have wanted to listen to since I bought the softcover version in 2003. The price was rather steep, so I never bought it, but now I had it, and I began to listen to this wonderful story. The weeks passed and I listened to the story in the car almost every day. After about a month, something funny, or actually sad happened while listening on what turned out to be file 11 of the audio-download. The spoken book skips ahead, leaving the reader confused. At first I thought it was my mistake as a listener, but when I listened closely and compared the audio to the printed version I discovered that file 11 of the audiobook was messed up.

I wrote to Barnes & Noble and told them about the error, and a representative from Nook – the tablet area of B&N answered with an apologetic email where they explained that they would get in touch with the publisher of the audiobook and get back to me. A month later I remembered their unfulfilled promise and wrote back to Barnes & Noble. Here is a quote from my letter:

We had an exchange earlier this year, after my complaint that the file Part 11 contained an error as several pages of the book had been mixed up. The audio skips from line 11 on pg 281 in the printed book (Harper Collins,2003) to line 2 from the bottom on pg 297 and then the reading continues on line 12 on pg 281 and goes on the end of the chapter on pg 288.
On February 20, I got an email from Mark, a Customer Service Rep at B&N/NOOK support:
We understand that you are concerned about the status of fix for audio book. We are happy to help you. To protect your privacy and before we can send our answer to you, we need your order number, which you can find in the subject line of your order confirmation email or within the body of the email.
If you no longer have your order number, one of the following pieces of information will be helpful:
-The last 4 digits of the credit card used on the order, or
-Your billing address AND the title of one of your items. 
We also need the email address you used to place your order if it is different than the one you are using to respond to this email.  (If you reply to this email from another email address, please include your original inquiry.)
I searched my email folders, but couldn’t find the order number, so I provided them with the last four digits of the card they asked for, as well as the billing address and title of the book.
The next morning I received a new email from NOOK support.
Dear Hans,  
Warm greetings from Barnes & Noble!  
Thank you for writing back to us. We understand that there is a content issue with the Audio book which was sent to you as an eGift and you were informed that it would be investigated and fixed. We apologize for the inconvenience caused as this issue was not resolved upon your initial contacts with us and we will do our best to resolve this issue for you. In order for us to check your account about the Audio book we need the email address which was used to purchase the book as we did not find it in your account, or if you have the service request number of the initial interactios with us when you were informed about investigating on the issue. This would help us in checking the records and the status of the issue. Just to confirm, please visit the link below:
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/don-quixote-by-miguel-de-cervantes/1100547792?ean=2000003448296
Are you referring to the same book in the above webpage? We feel that this could be resolved best by contacting us through our phone support line or you could also write back to us with the required information.
Warm greetings ... that felt nice! But the sentence where Ethan, another Customer Service Representative, writes that “we understand that there is a content issue” reminds me of “talking” to Eliza, one of the first chatterbots, i.e. a computer program that mimics a human being. Joseph Weizenbaum's virtual psychotherapist Eliza took excerpts from a persons sentences and restated them in order to get the person to tell more. In her email, Ethan asks for my wife’s email address, and wants me to confirm if the book she provides a link to is the one I have complained despite the fact that I already told Mark that I was referring to Grossman’s translation.  I wrote back, supplied my wife’s email address, and explained the situation again. Later the same day, I got another email from NOOK support, this time from Vicky at Customer Support.
Thank you for writing back to us. We understand that you're still receiving incorrect Audio book. We apologize for the inconvenience caused. We are ready to issue a full refund for the Audio book, please get back to us with the confirmation.
By now I’m seriously suspecting that I am not communicating with persons at all, but with a sloppy chatterbot. The emails are ill written, but not the way a human errs, unless the writer behind the digital curtain is just cutting and pasting in a hurry.  “Vicky” also ignores my answer to “Ethan’s” question about the link he provided.  To be fair, I should say that I was offered to chat with "one of our Digital representatives for further assistance,” but my trust in the digital team had by now extended to “Chat Team,” so I kept writing to Mark, Ethan and Vicky, but my frustration was showing.
To: NOOK@BARNESANDNOBLE.COM
Sent:02/24/14 06:29:12 
Subject: RE: RE: RE: FW: Problem with Don Quixote audiobook

Hi Mark, Ethan and Vicky, Are you guys real or an algorithm? Or did NOOK support repurpose ELIZA for customer support?

You are rephrasing my previous emails, but it seems like you are not really reading them. I have given you the information you asked for, so you should be able to answer my question about the error in file 11 of the Don Quixote audiobook (the Emily Grossman translation). I was previously promised that you would investigate with the publisher, but you have asked about other editions and now offer a refund, something I never asked for. What’s going on?
It didn’t take long before I got an answer, this time from “Chase.”
RE: RE: RE: RE: FW: Problem with Don Quixote audiobook 
Dear Customer,  
Thank you for writing to us. We understand that there is a content issue with the Audio book which was sent to you as an eGift and you were informed that it would be investigated and fixed. We apologize for the inconvenience caused and will be glad to assist you with this issue.  
We have checked with your BN account and found that the credit card information status shows unverified. If you have further questions or inquiries, please feel free to contact us again and we would be glad to assist you.  
Wishing you a wonderful day!  
Sincerely,  
Chase  
Customer Service Representative - Digital Support  
**{SrvReqNo:[8007760501]} ** DO NOT DELETE**
To which I just answered:
Dear “Chase,” “Vicky,” “Ethan,” and “Mark,” or “Eliza” for short,
The content issue is the simple fact that you are selling a product with an error in the recording/editing that leaves the listener confused at one point. My reason for writing to you in the first place was concern that other customers may not realize that the confusion in file 11 of the audiobook is due to a production error, and that Barnes & Noble might be interested in correcting this error and provide a correction in the form of a replacement file, but I get no sense that you are interested in supporting your customers on this issue, which disappoints me as a long time B&N customer.   
As for the credit card, this is totally irrelevant as 1) I am not purchasing anything, 2) not asking for a credit, and 3) don’t store my account number in your system, but only enter it when I shop.    
Best, 
Hans    
PS. I wonder how many turns we are going to take in this waltz before a human is called in.

Addendum, February 25, 2014.

Today I got an answer from B&N that looks like it was written by a human being.
Dear Hans Sandberg,
We understand that you are concerned about the contents of the purchased NOOK book. We can see how that would annoy you and apologize for the inconvenience. As the issue is not resolved and our content management team is working to make necessary corrections on the file. We request that you wait for 2 more weeks or we would go ahead and refund for the order
It's like somebody finally took a step back, or maybe a supervisor stepped in, and said that we may need to actually read what the customer is writing. It's going to be interesting to see what will happen next. In the meantime, I have found the order number, which I will send to NOOK/B&N.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could a Radical Surge Pull the Democrats Away from Centrism?

The political writer Michael Tomasky discusses the future of radical politics in an essay for the New York Review of Books that is nominally a review of Lane Kenworthy's book Social Democratic America (Oxford University Press), but really a discussion of the balance between centrist and radicals in the Democratic Party.

"There exists these days, among Washington policy intellectuals and advocates who tilt toward the left end of the accepted political spectrum, a certain measured optimism. It’s not about Obama, or any feeling that he might somehow, with his sagging poll numbers, be able to persuade congressional Republicans to fund, say, an infrastructure investment bank. Confidence is appropriately near zero on matters like that. Rather, it’s about the widely held perception that the Democratic Party, after years of, in the argot, “moving to the right,” is finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and toward a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years or even decades."
Will this leftward pressure make Hillary Clinton run as a populist (if she decides to run), rather than cozy up to her and her husband's Wall Street friends? Will she do a reverse Romney and cater to the left in the primaries to fight off Elizabeth Warren, only to turn rightwards once nominated?

Lane Kenworthy's key argument is that the move towards a more welfare oriented - social democratic if we use a more European term - society is a necessity, and he thinks that the Republican party eventually will come to there senses - somewhat. But Tomasky points out that if the Republican party nominates a more moderate candidate and he/she loses, then the extreme candidates may have a chance again.

Hubble Telescope Images