Literature Is Money, and Other News


On the Shelf

From the cover of Secondhand Time.

  • There’s no good reason not to fear the alt-right and their white-nationalist fantasies—but Jacob Bacharach, a gay, Jewish novelist, spent his high school years immured in what he calls “teenage Nazi” culture, and his message is comforting: these dudes are a bunch of insecure mouth-breathing losers who couldn’t revolutionize their way out of a paper bag. Bacharach recalls a DIY film project he and his friends undertook in 1999, his senior year: “The movie inevitably made its way to our principal. There were plenty of bits to get a decent and unimaginative man riled up—rituals cribbed from Anton LeVay, drug use both simulated and actual, violence, and plenty of fake blood. But I have to believe that the worst moment for that poor administrator and for our poor parents was when they watched another friend of ours, a nice girl from a devoutly Christian family—Lord knows how we cajoled her into participating—crawl between my legs to perform simulated fellatio on a TV remote control. I suspect we meant all this as some kind of commentary on the media. The camera panned up to my contorted face. ‘Oh yeah, baby,’ I growled, ‘Suck it. Heil Hitler, my dick is your Fuhrer.’ ” 

  • Reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, Vadim Nikitin aspires to a deeper understanding of spiritual and intellectual life in the Soviet Union, where literature was money: “The spiritual aspects of socialism are rarely discussed in Western accounts of the Soviet Union … The most important piece of furniture in Soviet times was always the bookshelf. ‘We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist,’ one man recalls. Literature was the only real currency … For the cultured middle classes, the prison camp that was the Soviet Union of the 1930s and ’40s had, by the 1960s, become more akin to a university campus … Poets commanded packed stadiums. Strangers exchanged newspapers on the Metro … When hardliners arrested Gorbachev in Crimea and attempted to turn back the clock, the liberal intelligentsia took to the barricades to defend Yeltsin and the democrats. Their hopes that literature could save the world were quickly and cruelly dashed. Suddenly, words and ideas lost their power. Emptied of poets, the stadiums quickly filled with faith healers, hypnotists, and pyramid schemers. ‘The discovery of money hit us like an atomic bomb,’ says a former Yeltsin supporter.”
  • Jack London, who died a century ago this month, is best remembered for The Call of the Wild, but Benjamin Breen argues that his final book, The Star Rover, is due for reevaluation: “His writings in this period reveal a keenly intelligent man attempting to work through the metaphysics of his own addictions. We see this in John Barleycorn’s personification of alcohol intoxication as a dialogue with a nebulous force that London calls ‘the White Logic’ … And we see it in the central motive force of The Star Rover, which is propelled not by drugs or drink but another form of altered consciousness—the hallucinations brought on by sensory deprivation. The book, in short, centers on that famous concept of another drug-taking adventurer-writer, Arthur Rimbaud: ‘the systematic derangement of all the senses.’ ”