Some Authors Are Stupid

You know what I hate? When I’m reading a book, enjoying it, and then the author comes out with a bit of some utter idiocy that I can’t get over. And when I try to get over it, the idiot of the author keeps repeating the idiocy because they probably see it as some crowning achievement.

Here is the most recent example. I started reading a biography of the great Brazilian writer of Jewish-Ukrainian origins, Clarice Lispector. The author of the biography is no genius, but the book was OK, as far as biographies go. And then, for some mysterious reason, the author starts harping on the idea of Lispector’s supposed “strident feminism.” There is not a single example of the “stridency” of Lispector’s feminism given in the book, but the author keeps harping about it.

Lispector’s mother was gang-raped by a mob of soldiers, contracted syphilis during the rape, and died a horrible painful death as a result. The writer grew up in the supremely machista Brazil of the 30ies and the 40ies. She was a woman in a culture and a time that treated women as a heap of trash. Yes, Clarice Lispector was sensitive to violations of women’s rights. Does that give the right to some pathetic semi-literate biography-writer to dismiss her political convictions that he is not even capable of understanding?

In short, Benjamin Moser, the author of Lispector’s biography Why This World should be ashamed of himself. I’m never reading a single word by this silly hater of feminism ever again. And I suggest everybody do the same. A biographer who can’t respect the great writer he tries to discuss deserves to go broke.

Library Humor

I’m taking a huge number of books out of the library because I need to work on my research during the break.

“Damn, how many courses did you fail this semester to need all these books over the break?” a library worker asks as he checks out my books.

I point to my ID card that says “Faculty.”

“This is what I get for never failing any courses,” I explain.

“I’ll never feel jealous of straight-A students again,” the library worker says as he eyes my pile of books with terror.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Politeness

Recently, I was talking to some of my colleagues about cultural differences (for the obvious reasons, most of my colleagues are foreigners), and we agreed that one of the things that really distinguish the English-speaking culture from our own cultures is the degree of politeness.

When I first moved to Canada, I remember feeling extremely suspicious whenever a cashier or a store assistant would greet me with, “Hi! How are you?”

“What do they want from me?” I’d immediately think. “Where is the trick? What are they trying to achieve here?”

In my country, you can enter even the most expensive, chic store you can find, spend a fortune there, and the shop assistants will treat you like garbage. (We have a long-standing tradition of salespeople being extremely rude and condescending that was inherited from the Soviet times and that shows no signs of abating.)

Or, say, you come to a party of Russian-speakers. Unless you are a foreigner*, you will be immediately greeted with (no “hello” or “good afternoon”, of course), “Oh my God, you look horrible. How did you manage to gain so much weight? Look how wonderful I look. Why can’t you look this way, too? This is a very old dress you are wearing, isn’t it? Why do you never buy any new clothes? Is it because you make no money? You are too old to make no money. How old are you, by the way? Did you say forty-five? No? You are just thirty-five? Wow, you’ve really let yourself go. Oh, the dress is new? Looks very worn and old, though. Are you sure it wasn’t a second-hand store where you bought it? Oh, wait, I will give you a great recipe to stop your hair falling out. Yes, believe me, you need it. Everybody, come here! Look at her hair. Tug at it. Tug harder! You see? I told you it was falling out!”**

Gradually, I came to recognize that politeness has its uses. Say, somebody pushes you accidentally on the bus. Instead of clawing at their face and screaming, “What the fuck did you just do, you creep?”*** you can simply say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And the person who pushed you will respond, “Oh no, it was my fault. I apologize.” And that, for some reason, makes you feel much better than greeting every action by a stranger with invariable aggression.

Now I tend to scare people from my Russian-speaking community by greeting everybody whenever I walk into a room, saying “please,” “thank you”, and politely enquiring about their well-being. Whenever I say, “Could you please pass me the salt? Thank you!” people look at me with a heavy suspicion. I can see they are waiting for a punch line which never comes.

My colleagues from Spain and Mexico report similar experiences.

* If foreigners walk into a Russian-speaking party, they would have people grovel and fake extreme politeness while saying really horrible things about them behind their backs.

** This is a completely real conversation I have had quite recently with a compatriot.

*** Again, there is no exaggeration or fictional flight of fancy here.