Sunday, January 10, 2010

From Lorrie & Joyce to Julius & Ethel

Last week I read A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. I was disappointed. It had gotten such raves and so many people seem to regard her as one of our contemporary literary gods. Also, I'd read an interview in which she spoke about it as a politicial work. Well. Mark me down as a No, for no great shakes literarily--that is, it didn't seem to me to work very well as a novel although I will say that yes there are many passages of lovely, often very funny, writing--and no again because there's no there there politically. I've heard from quite a few people who agree that the novel doesn't succeed but insist that her short fiction is superb, and I have meant for a long time to read some of her stories, so I will, one of these days.

Also last week I read a story by Joyce Carol Oates that shows she's still had Marilyn Monroe on her mind, at least as of 2004 collection I Am No One You Know. The story is "Three Girls." The title characters are two NYU students plus MM, whom they spy attempting to browse and buy books incognito at the Strand in 1956. It's short, sweet, and altogether delightful. The book jacket features this excerpt from a Jane Smiley piece on JCO, which strikes me as right on target as to the writer and her project.
With her prodigious gifts of invention and her systematic exploration of literary history, she has gone beyond the demands of the marketplace. ... Like J.S. Bach, Joyce Carol Oates often seems to be working in private, cultivating the variety and complexity of her vision in service to something larger than a literary career.
Last night I watched the 2004 movie Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story. It is a documentary about Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg and their family, and how their trial and executions affected their family. The filmmaker is the Rosenbergs' granddaughter Ivy Meeropol. I'd recently found the DVD, weirdly enough, in a $5 bin at Staples. The film is good, especially keeping in mind that it's not meant exactly as a political defense of the Rosenbergs but rather an exploration of various questions from the angle of the family. I was pretty weepy through most of it, just as I'd been embarrassingly weepy when I attended the 2003 event at Town Hall marking the 50th anniversary of the executions. I especially liked the interviews with various contemporaries and comrades of the Rosenbergs. I was left wishing for a fuller political treatment, but that would be a different movie, not the one Ms. Meeropol set out to make. It would explore more about the anti-Semitic character of the anti-Rosenberg campaign, about the international context, the anti-communist purges of the unions, and so on, in other words, more about that terrible time. And it would explicitly identify the Rosenbergs as heroes, especially if Julius did aid the Soviet Union in any way. Because aiding the Soviet Union during and after World War II meant both helping that country to survive and helping to ensure a balance of armaments, which at that point was the only thing holding U.S. imperialism in check. The U.S. did invade Korea in 1950, but although it waged a horrific war to crush the Korean revolution, although it killed 2 million Koreans and came very close to dropping the atomic bomb on the north, it ultimately did not use nuclear weapons, for which I believe we have the existence of a nuclear-armed USSR to thank. Which means we also have the Rosenbergs to thank if they--meaning from all indications Julius, for Ethel's heroism was in refusing to aid and abet the U.S. government in its anticommunist campaign, refusing to turn against either Julius or anyone else on the lists of names the prosecutors tried to get her to endorse--if they did provide any type of help as the working-class internationalist partisans that they so admirably were.