Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mikhail Lermontov - A Hero of Our Time

A Hero of Our Time (Penguin Classics)A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is so good we really need to start with the translator's note.

First published in 1840, 'A Hero of Our Time' was translated to English by Nabokov in 1958, framing the experience wonderfully for the modern reader. We have been directed here by the highest of references and are being led through by his very capable hand, as if a master chef not only recommended a fine restaurant, but went with you and helped order and explain all the courses. One is thus pleasantly reassured before even beginning (good also, because the book starts slowly and gets better as it goes, to its spectacular finish).

From Nabokov one can learn a great deal about an artist's point of view, simply because he is so fearless in his evaluation of writing and literature. His opinion is simply his own, unswayed by convention or fad. "Though of tremendous and at times somewhat morbid interest to the sociologist" he begins before discussing the social significance of the protagonist, or "this is a ridiculous opinion, voiced by... Chekhov, and can only be held if and when a moral quality or social virtue is confused with literary art" when discussing the book's literary merit.

Nabokov's critical barometer is also appropriately sensitive - sometimes scathing (perhaps tinged with the occasional professional jealousy) - which makes for a good read: for instance when he describes a reference in the footnotes as "a vulgar novelette, ending in ridiculous melodrama, by the overrated French writer, Balzac".

Vanity plays a humorous role, as Nabokov spends an inordinate amount of time essentially apologizing for Lermontov's prose, much of which he attributes to the literary conventions of the age (11 cases of eavesdropping) and the rest to the author's personal inadequacies. "His similes and metaphors are utterly commonplace; his hackneyed epithets are only redeemed by occasionally being incorrectly used" or "thus in the course of [the book:] the faces of various people turn purple, red, rosy, orange, yellow, green and blue." Its really quite funny how Nabokov so carefully dissociates himself from the writing, all whilst underscoring the vital, painstaking importance of creating a translation faithful to the original text.

On to the novel itself. Morbid sociological interest aside, this novel fills in a critical gap in my understanding of Russian literature. The main character, Pechorin - well educated, handsome, strong in spirit, etc. - suffers a sort of existential ennui: he is bored with life and thus plays rather recklessly with his own fate, often at the expense of those (usually women) around him. He is the "Byronic hero", inspired by both Lord Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin". (The tradition continues: Coetzee's "Disgrace", which I read recently, places this same Bryonic hero in contemporary South Africa, with morally complex, sometimes shocking, results...).

There exists strong resemblance in character and personality of Pechorin to Turgenev's Bazarov in "Fathers and Sons", the 'nihilist' considered to be the first Bolshevik. In 1850 Turgenev wrote "Diary of a Superfluous Man" (next on my list) with a character similar to Lermontov's Pechorin; the connection is very direct and clear.

As I (and many others, I assume) have discussed elsewhere, we can then draw a line from Turgenev's Bazarov to Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov in "What is to be Done?" (Chernyshevsky's narrative style, in which he toys with the reader regarding his own moral purpose and perspective, is very similar to Lermontov's) and then of course from Rakhmetov as the fictional character idealized by Vladimir Lenin. This complete path from the Byron-inspired Russian "Superfluous man" to the Russian nihilist to the idealized Bolshevik character (I suppose we shouldn't restrict to Bolshevism, but you get the idea) is one of great interest to me, essentially tying culturally-embedded heroes or idealized personality-types to eventual idealized sociopolitical personality-types. The extent to which these were or were not misunderstood is very significant to the course of human history.

Alright, surely that qualifies for morbid sociological interest. Sorry Nabokov.

Back to the story itself. In the beginning, one wonders just what is so special about it, and can't help agreeing with many of Nabokov's not so subtle points regarding the quality of Lermontov's prose. But it just gets better and better as one goes. The two final stories, "Princess Mary" and "The Fatalist" are both extraordinary - dramatically gripping and filled with interesting musings and insights. I'll conclude with one of them, to give you a sense of Pechorin's character and hopefully inspire you to read "A Hero of Our Time".

"The moon, full and red, like the glow of a conflagration, began to appear from behind the uneven line of roofs; the stars shone calmly upon the dark-blue vault, and it amused me to recall that, once upon a time, there were sages who thought that the heavenly bodies took part in our trivial conflicts for some piece of land or some imaginary rights. And what happened? These lampads, lit, in the opinion of these sages, merely to illumine their battles and festivals, were burning as brightly as ever, while their passions and hopes had long been extinguished with them, like a small fire lit on the edge of the forest by a carefree wayfarer! But on the other hand, what strength of will they derived from the certitude that the entire sky with its countless inhabitants was looking upon them with mute but permanent sympathy! Whereas we, their miserable descendants, who roam the earth without convictions or pride, without rapture or fear (except for that instinctive dread that compresses our hearts at the thought of the inevitable end), we are no longer capable of great sacrifice, neither for the good of mankind, nor even for our own happiness, because we know its impossibility, and pass with indifference from doubt to doubt, just as our ancestors rushed from one delusion to another. But we, however, do not have either their hopes or even that indefinite, albeit real, rapture that the soul encounters in any struggle with men or with fate."

Rapture. Let this novel stir it within you.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

GM and AmeriCredit: How Our Economic Obesity is Dependent Upon Fiction and Predation

GM's recent $3.5 billion dollar purchase of subprime loan company AmeriCredit barely caused a ripple in the news. I blame no one for this; personally I was far more concerned with how many days Lindsay Lohan would spend in jail! Still, this was big, wasn't it? It was not long ago that GM was teetering on the verge of collapse, rescued only by a massive government bailout.

It is now owned, nominally, by the People. So let's have a look at our investment.

Why would GM buy a subprime loan company?

A few pundits did offer their thoughts, most poignantly the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin, who explained, "G.M. plans to prod sales of its vehicles by using AmeriCredit to extend loans and leases to automobile customers with questionable credit. (That’s why they are called subprime loans.) These are the same customers who could very well be denied a loan by other lenders." He then asks the question of the hour: "Did we really spend $50 billion of our money just to revive the kinds of practices that led to the credit crisis?"

Yes, we did.

But why?

I believe the answer belies a deeper, more fundamental and possibly fatal flaw in our economy.

"If you liked our first-quarter financial results, stay tuned for our second-quarter financial results!"
- GM Chief Edward E. Whitacre

Before I digress into this cheerless topic let us first examine why it is in General Motor's interests to buy subprime lender AmeriCredit. The answer should be very simple: subprime loans expand the consumer market base by loosening restrictions to lending. New markets are good; they provide the growth necessary for the company's vital return to profitability.

That's it! Right?

Were it only so.

AmeriCredit's Business Model is Inherently Predatory
It is terribly ironic that despite so much retroactive moralism (we seem to excel in this), we apparently have no issue with a government-owned (or private!) company adopting a method of profitability that embraces the very practices that - not long ago - we ostensibly found abhorrent.

The fact is, consumer failure is at the heart of the AmeriCredit business model. In order to offset the risk/loss of defaults, the model is dependent upon the very significant percentage of consumers who fail to keep up with payments or are only able to make a minimal payment, thereby either incurring serious financial penalties or effectively making no impact on the principle. Profit is thus derived from the exorbitant fees, penalties, and high interest added to the purchase price, resulting in revenue far above and beyond the actual market value of the car.

Fortunately (and for reasons I cannot reveal here), I happened to be hiding under the table in the GM board room when the AmeriCredit epiphany transpired, eavesdropping while G and M discussed their evil plan. Transcript as follows:

M: (looking glum)

G: What's the matter, M?

: (sighs) We've run out of people to sell cars to.

: Bummer.

(a brief, melancholic silence
, pregnant pause, etc., follows)

: Wait, I have an idea.

: Do tell.

: Let's loan money to people that really shouldn't have money loaned to them.

: Sounds intriguing, I like it already.

: Here's how it will work: We'll advertise like hell, bring poor credit types on the lot, blow a lot of smoke up their ass, then dangle our carrot in front of them - a new car!

: A new car!

: Once we've hooked them in, we'll seduce them into agreeing on an absurdly overvalued purchase price by breaking down the elusive total cost (which we will only reveal at the point of death) into 'affordable monthly payments'.

: Affordable monthly payments. Nice ring.

: There's more! We'll assure them they won't have to pay a penny today. Zero down! 'Worry about it tomorrow!' we'll tell them.

: Never do today what you can do tomorrow!

: Next we'll employ psychology. Right when they think the car is theirs, we deliver the dreadful news: their loan might not be approved! Their credit is dubious, after all. We leave them in a small room, let them sweat a bit, peer in anxiously from time to time, and then: bingo! Approved!

: But who in their right mind would approve the loan?

G: We would! We own the loan company! AmeriCredit!

: You're good. But I'm afraid you have a little problem.

: Impossible.

: When you loan money to people you really shouldn't be loaning money to, very often they don't pay you the money back.

: But that's the whole idea, M!!!

: What?

: If they don't pay, we threaten to repossess that brand new car they've been driving around.

: I see. So then they pay?

: No, of course not! They couldn't afford the car in the first place! Remember? They have bad credit!!! And now they're behind with late fees, penalties, compounded interest, all of it!

: We've backed them into the proverbial corner. I love it.

: Yes, all they can do is make a minimum payment. If that!!! Ha, ha!!! They can't even put a dent in the principle! A vicious cycle! We'll make a fortune! Money from nothing! And in the end, we might even get the car back after all! Or sucker them into another one!

: Come to my arms! Genius!

Forgive me, a brief, ill-advised attempt at levity; sadly we now return to the grim topic at hand.

The point: the AmeriCredit model is inherently predatory. Without these penalties, late fees, exaggerated interest rates, etc. embedded in its profit model, it falls apart. It thus cannot be rationalized or regulated or manipulated to look like anything other than what it is. We are, in effect, generously rewarding the swindler.

I find all this highly problematic.

But what is the alternative?

A Healthy Economy Should Derive Profit from its Products and Services
In the case of GM, their product, a motor vehicle, has a value. That value, very simply, should be sufficient to create profitability for the company. If it can't create profitability on its own, then it follows that there is a serious flaw with the company and/or product itself.

We don't sidestep that problem (whatever it may be - a failure to innovate, myopia, hubris, etc.) by resorting to a means of profitability wholly unrelated to the company's primary product, particularly when that means is fundamentally nefarious. That is not to say there is anything wrong with ancillary revenue streams, even clever ones, but when they consist of precisely the same ingredients that have very recently led our economy to near ruin, we should have cause for concern.

In the case of AmeriCredit, profit is derived from failure. If money is a symbol of an exchange in social value, we should be alarmed when our system generates wealth from deception, fear, intimidation, irresponsibility, ignorance, foolishness, and the like. These are desperate means of creating wealth. These are also immoral, unethical, and potentially inhumane means of creating wealth.

We want our wealth to be derived from things like innovation, knowledge, freedom, creativity, hard work, persistence, commitment, individual empowerment, merit, the can-do attitude, etc. In short, the increasingly elusive, so-called American Spirit.

There is a great social cost to the predatory model: we reinforce our social shortcomings and problems by making them an integral component to our own economic health.

Why are we doing this? Why are we, as a people, effectively endorsing a company like AmeriCredit?

My answer should (hopefully!) disturb you.

Our Economy Relies on Predation Because it Must
To sustain our rate of affluence, our economy needs to grow. To grow, we need to find new markets. In the unlikely scenario there are no more new markets to find, then our rate of affluence will have to slow down. Pretty simple. But what if we really, really, really don't want to slow down our rate of affluence and yet still are unable to find any new markets substantial enough to sustain the very growth we require?

Well, we might make them up. We might create revenue out of the ether. We might make a fictional market.

That is precisely what recently happened. The true cause of the recession was to lose our suspension of disbelief, albeit reluctantly. Fueled by the pressing need to create new markets where there were none to be found, we simply drummed them up and pretended they were real. The difference between the true value of a house and the fictional value it was imagined to be worth (all with 'borrowed' money) created a vital revenue stream that in reality did not exist at all. No one could really afford to pay the inflated loans offered by the banks for assets that were not really worth the prices we invented for them.

Now why would we do something that dumb? Because this need to create artificial wealth is due to an unwillingness to accept a very ugly truth about our own society: we are economically obese.

Economic Obesity
We have a sickness. We are full, but we don't want to slow down. Our appetite is insatiable, and yet we are running out of real nourishment (real products, services, and new markets) to feed it. As a result we are opting to eat either a lavishly nonexistent meal or to indulge in the equivalent of economic trans-fat: predation.

Thus the fundamental problem with our economy is that our rate of affluence is so high we cannot sustain its need to grow without relying on artificial or predatory mechanisms of market creation.

In other words, houses became wildly overinflated because they had to. Predatory subprime loans are a part of the automobile industry because they have to be.

GM vehicles (the real product) are not adequate on their own to support the size of waistline our economic obesity demands. Similar to artificially bloated housing prices, the interest, penalties, fees, and so forth added to a subprime loan represents the fictional value of the automobile industry. It is not surviving on fumes, it is surviving on something that is at worst predatory, at best socially valueless. It is creating a 'market' by resorting to unethical means of obtaining wealth.

In order to sustain our own economic obesity, we must feed nefariously on ourselves!

So What?
An artificial market will, sooner or later, reveal its illusory nature, with severe economic consequences. The housing bubble crashes, etc. A predatory market, however, is indeed a viable source of nourishment to a free market, providing it is devoid of ethics.

So what's the problem?

Embedded in the predatory business model is a not-so-subtle component of social exploitation: the sum effect is to enable the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.

Let us take the AmeriCredit case. How the demographics of subprime car loans break down precisely is beyond me, but I suspect those with credit issues are very often those with less money to begin with. If you cannot generally afford things, you are more vulnerable to the suggestion that you might be able to have them anyway, particularly when you have been emotionally clubbed over the head that you are utterly inadequate if you don't (we call this advertising - a topic I intend to write about at length elsewhere).

What's so strange about that, you ask?

Absolutely nothing.

If you peer into history, you will find that invariably, every society gradually succumbs to severe social stratification, surviving on these very same corrupt and immoral methods to squeeze every penny of value from the poor, making them only poorer.

When we allow our own economy to become reliant on the same mechanisms from which we once fled in terrified droves (or huddled masses), we know that the destiny of this country is no different from those we have so valiantly attempted to differentiate ourselves from. And indeed, social stratification in the United States has already reached such a point that the wealthy class is entirely out of touch with just how much money they make, and just how little the poor do not.

We are recreating those societies as we speak; the sooner we all realize this, the better.

Our economy, simply because this country is so enormously, unfathomably rich, will of course recover from our 'recession', and recover relatively quickly. But (until we corral our economic obesity) we will learn nothing from it because we can't. We are dependent upon these fictional revenue streams until the system breaks down completely, which it ultimately will (if history is any guide), upon which we will suffer through a terrible recalibration of actual and imagined wealth. I shudder to think how this will play out, but again, if history is any guide, the stakes are truly life and death.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop: A Brief Review

The Bookshop: A NovelThe Bookshop: A Novel by Penelope Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Penelope Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer; in terms of prose this book holds up with all the classics. She is very funny too - if you enjoy that dry, subtle English sense of humor you will love this novel.

I found the theme of the novel to be so much more than the book jacket indicated. This was about the pending shift from the old power structure to the new. The protagonist is perfect because she is a middle-aged woman, seemingly harmless, but she has the courage and gumption to take on the establishment, in her own very adorable way. She is conscious of the danger but unwilling to yield her principals. She is the new England: the 'commoner' that becomes a business owner, dares to tackle culture, undaunted by aristocracy and its mechanisms of suppression (political, legal, nepotism, cronyism, etc.). And she makes headway. From this it is clear the power-structure is teetering on the brink of change, as a result the old machinery is in a state of panic. This is the irony - they are threatened by no more than a little bookshop.

Meanwhile, she has the sympathy of this mysterious old fellow who is also a symbol of perhaps the more benevolent, gallant side of the waning English aristocracy. Anyhow I won't say anymore except that without recognizing these larger themes the book wouldn't have been nearly as interesting as it was, so I wouldn't look at it as little more than a character study of quaint village life. I just finished 'Remains of the Day' before reading this and found many parallels.

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Gladkov's Cement: A Brief Review

Cement (European Classics)Cement by Fyodor Vasilievich Gladkov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most Westerners familiar with Russian Lit immediately cast this book into the 'not worthy of real literature/soviet propaganda' dustbin (I suspect because their prof told them to and, I would imagine, without even reading it). Comments I read on Goodreads, for instance, summed up the general sentiment: "This book is only of academic interest... written as stalinist agitprop... bereft of any characterstics that would qualify the tome as literature."

A shame, because 'Cement' is a fascinating insight into the (granted, naive) spirit of post-revolutionary Soviet Russia. Historically it is a little like John Reed's 'Ten Days That Shook the World': it captures very vividly a moment in time that is vital to understand if one wishes any insight on modern Russian History.

In terms of literature, while not on par with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, what writer is??? If we were to use the 'great russian writer or bust' criteria for evaluation we'd eliminate the vast majority of novels ever penned. Gorky isn't there either (though better than Gladkov), but he's very good. Gladkov has his moments. His style is sparse, pithy, certainly prescient in terms of what was to come. Aesthetically something is afoot, mirroring the revolutionary changes taking place in the arts during this period - graphic art, Shostokovich, etc...

In short, a must read for anyone interested in the spectrum of Russian Lit. Give it a chance before you chalk it up to Soviet propaganda.

UPDATE:  Having just read Lermontov's 'A Hero of Our Time' (highly recommend), I must say there is a terrible double standard in Russian literature.  We forgive Lermontov's shaky prose just as we forgive Gogol for burning a good portion of 'Dead Souls' in his fireplace - all because of the moral, social, and historical merit that makes both novels extraordinary.  

'Cement' is just as extraordinary in this sense, yet for whatever reason is not forgiven for fairly mild literary shortcomings.  

And yet we do know the reason.  Criticism of 'Cement's mild literary shortcomings is merely a ruse for a general attack on the Soviet propaganda machine.  And for good reason: we justifiably abhor the extent to which the Soviets oppressed people generally and the arts specifically.  

But to make "Cement" a scapegoat for Soviet censorship, oppression, etc., is a serious mistake.  This is a novel that captures very beautifully not only an important moment in history but also the nascent emergence of many modern issues and practices transcending early Soviet life.  The emergence of day care, for instance.  Or the rights of women.  The novel in fact is centered very much on the difficult adjustment Gleb and Dasha must make in reuniting; their newly-defined relationship certainly resonates with contemporary issues.  Franz Boas would have a field day.  

It is time to dissociate the crude connection between Gladkov and what is now a very impotent/obsolete political discourse, and rediscover the worthy place 'Cement' occupies in Russian literature.