Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
I have several drafts on Wharton (whoops, missed that deadline), Silent Light (for First Magazine), Lydia Millet (that one was supposed to be an epic), A.L. Kennedy and others seething from neglect in the bowels of my dashboard (while I wonder what else I can do for Open Letters Monthly). There are many (many) print and online literary magazine issues languishing unread. (This never, never happens. If I read anything it’s my LRB and OLM.) I’ll offer no excuses only my apologies and this post which I just churned out in an effort to get the juices flowing.
My most recent novel read is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. It’s a Booker winner so I heard about it but the prize plus the title emitted waves of tedium — I figured it featured some middle-aged don’s limpid natterings plus an affair with a fresh young student. This changed last year when I read Hollinghurst’s excellent TLS Commentary piece on Ronald Firbank. I thought his name sounded familiar and behold! he was the same Booker winner of that one book. Still wary I swerved and reached for his first novel instead The Swimming-pool Library and was amazed. Never had I imagined such an unabashedly sexual novel could at the same time be so “literary” — in this case simply meaning a book with complex themes, stimulating, morally ambiguous character dynamics, lovely writing, interesting set up of ideas, motifs and so on.
A lot can happen between 1988 when that book was published to 2004. If I had known that The Line of Beauty was so recent I might have skipped it for one of the 90s novels. (I held the impression it was a mid-90s novel for some reason.) Hollinghurst aged, mellowed, became wiser, a little less outrageous, more subtle, judicious, wilier, perhaps, likes to take his time, turn the wheel, build the moment with layer upon intricately built layer. Basically, it turned out to be the novel I dreaded. The sort of book that, I imagine, innocent hoi polloi buy in an effort to obey their betters by partaking in the superior literature of the day, only to have it lay on the nighttime table for half-a-year with the book mark at somewhere around page 110 holding up the latest Stephanie Plum and the new non-fiction sensation.
If I were a Henry James fan I may have loved this book, squeeing in delight at every big and small allusion. (Amateur Reader doesn’t think so.) Usually, I get a bit excited when a writer so consistently links his book to another’s, especially if it’s a classic one with which I am unfamiliar. Unless it’s Henry James whose books have always looked very long and sound very boring. (I was wrong about Edith — could be wrong about James…but have you seen the size of his books? I do it for Proust but he’s French. I’ll do a lot for French writers. And British Victorian writers but James is Edwardian, right? Missed it, old chum. Can we pretend his fiction is Edwardian for the sake of this post and my excuses? Isn’t he American or something? There, Americans don’t count, I go for the British.)
Nick Guest, the protagonist in Hollinghurst’s most recent novel, is a doctorate student in Literature at UCL writing an unfathomable thesis on James, his favourite writer. He graduated from Worcester College, Oxford where, despite his middle-class trappings, he managed to make friends with the handsome rower Toby whose uncle (on Mom’s side) is an Earl and whose politician father is similarly (though I think a less illustriously, title-wise) connected and very wealthy besides. The family likes Nick, so much so that they rent him one of the rooms in its London home, making him feel like one of the family. It helps that he can act as a vaguely defined guardian for Toby’s younger 19 year old sister who is clinically depressed and a bit wild besides: keep her from cutting herself, vet her boyfriends, assess and report on her general well-being, all the things a 21 year old is uniquely qualified to do. He is also a gay virgin and desperate to hook-up and indulge in much thought over pleasures.
Not much in the book happens as Hollinghurst covers three years of Guest in the Fedden household. Nick sleeps with some guys, is eternally conflicted about his existence in this upper-class lifestyle, oft disapproving and yet addicted to its sensual gifts and lifetime of ease. He sees through Gerald’s fake politician affability yet takes pride in being connected to Gerald in the first place. He wants to be true to himself and those around him but can’t quite manage it much of the time, probably because he’s not so sure what to make of himself. (I’m guessing my ignorance of all things Henry James is working against me here.) To be fair, the choice of sleeping mates is an essential structural point. At the beginning, in more innocent times (of limited opportunity), he puts aside a long-held crush for Toby and sends out a lonely heart letter to a Jamaican working class man in his late 20s. In the second section he’s made a leap and bags Wani, a beautiful, wealthy Lebanese millionaire (from his Oxford batch), a closeted gay whose debonair, effortless cool demeanour that the world admires is wholly owed to Cocaine Productions. In the third that’s done away with due to ex-lovers left and right succumbing to an “illness” that goes unnamed for most of the story. Each marks an evolution in Nick’s character to an extent.
The story’s historical backdrop colours the story heavily as well, something that only became obvious to me after I pulled myself out of Nick’s constant “OMG I’m so middle class + gay but I love all this sex+drugs+money+class privilege but oooh they can be so callous + self-delusional and I’m totes better than that haha but am I really, I’m so lost? lawks” loop. They’re in Thatcher’s England as the book starts out at around the peak of her popularity and ends after her last Tory win when her prospects begin to dim — all the while England’s unemployment numbers rises in the millions. As an upper-class Tory who treats his rural constituents as if they were extra-terrestrial visitors who must be humoured one realises how effectively Gerald’s status acts as blinkers. So his Thatcher-mania is almost redundant in that regard. There’s a scene near the end where Gerald is over-the-moon to have “The Lady” at his house for his wedding anniversary party — which doesn’t figure much for his poor wife must remind him that they will have the first dance not him and Thatcher — in which Hollinghurst has a jolly, slightly caustic old time describing all the plump, middle-aged Thatcherites following her around reverentially, patting their balding pates while eyeing her bounteous crop enviously, kneeling on the floor by her as she sits on the coach desperate to get in a word. It was too much like those deb balls you read in Regency romances or a parody of a Jane Austen ballroom scene except that our intrepid hero sees through it all and gleefully succumbs to it (even though he’s not a Thatcherite). Story of his life.
Homosexuality figures largely as well and lends the novel a furtive quality. Most of Nick’s upper-class society know that he’s gay they just politely ignore it except the rougher ones who take jibes at him in order to establish some imaginary superiority. It’s a shadow world that, unfortunately, is gaining more public attention because of AIDS. The landscape is trickier because Nick has a penchant for black lovers who aren’t fortunate enough to have millionaire Daddies to smooth over the race issue among his company. Wani has that but is supremely conscious of its less than stellar supermarket origins therefore he’s not going to make things worse by even implicitly acknowledging a relationship with Nick. Add this to Nick’s class issues and although his life seems charmed for most of the novel it’s more like he’s dancing on a precipice held up by sheer luck. And though his richer friends may be more secured Hollinghurst never allows that secure decadence to permeate the entire novel. It has a much more enclosed quality like a snow globe and around them things are harder, more precarious, less glamorous.
Rather, this is how the novel appears to me now as I turn it over. I assure you while reading it it felt more like trying to do the foxtrot hip deep in mud. I know it is a more complex novel that The Swimming-Pool Library , far more intricately built. There are untold things you could pick apart that I’ve not mentioned, including the musical allusions and the architectural references and close attention to buildings in particular, which carries over from TS-PL. No doubt critics would view Hollinghurst’s change in hero an advancement — from the rich, carefree, lusty, outrageous yet often judicious William Beckwith to the anxious, naive, smart but wilfull, middle-class Nick more liable to sink than sail and so therefore a tastier morsel for a good novelist. However, I prefer when Hollinghurst’s caustic humour and abandonment is closer to the surface, when he doesn’t draw the curtain on a sex scene early enough to make it “tasteful” and more palatable (I suppose). That writer appeared in The Line of Beauty but not early enough to save it. My interest in Hollinghurst still remains, though, and I intend to read all of his backlist so that should tell you something.
This won’t be the most edifying post you’ve ever read here but I saw a similar bit at Sterne and decided I’d share some Amazon one/two star reviews on some of the books I read this year. It’s less about the book in question than the reason the book got trashed…
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd.
Very well done … but somehow lacking, September 29, 2005
Let me first say that it’s a well-written, fascinating, literate piece of work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Then again, afterwards you’re left with a sort of empty feeling. Because where did those horrors Moore alludes to come from? And the answer is: from the beliefs that Moore espouses!
Yes, ladies and gentlemen. In the scene where he broadcasts a message via a TV station, he plainly states that we are just animals, fresh off the tree. And this was the exact view that Hitler, for one, used to justify his campaign of killing the unwanted: the old, the infirm, the mentally ill, gays, Jews. As Bethell writes:
“During the period of American neutrality in World War I, Kellogg was posted to the headquarters of the German general staff and was shocked to find German military leaders, sometimes with the Kaiser present, supporting the war with an “evolutionary rationale.” They did so with “a particularly crude form of natural selection, defined as inexorable, bloody battle. …
“You like Darwin?” The German intellectuals were saying. “We’ll give you Darwin.” (end quote)
*I’ve been watching all of Extras these days.
I’m not a memoir person and only become so under special circumstances. The first memoir, *From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People, is written by Lorna Goodison one of my favourite poets who turns out to be a remarkable prose writer. That wouldn’t have been special enough without the added bonus of her mother’s life is the book’s main focus. Add the fact that one of my favourite Goodison poems is dedicated to and about that woman, then I’m sold.
The second memoir, Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood by Rachel Manley, benefited from the goodwill gained by the first. Here was another notable Jamaican woman writing not only or even primarily about herself but about life with her grandparents: his Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley, one of the nation’s founders and a National Hero, and Edna Manley, one of our most acclaimed artists. (I attended summer programmes and took piano lessons at the school named after her.) She also deals to a lesser extent with her so so relationship with her father, Michael Manley, a former Jamaica prime minister.
Goodison’s memoir provides the unexpected pleasure of revealing much about Jamaica’s history and lifestyle of which I had not an inkling: what brought certain Europeans like the Irish and Scottish settlers; specific details on the Maroons; and simply how every day life was for ordinary Jamaicans, how they kept house, earned a living, their cultural mores, how much had changed and stayed the same. It complemented details I picked up in Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence and Banana Bottom by Claude McKay on how every and anything obviously connected to our African ancestry was rejected. An attitude that seems so alien to me now when I recall donning Nigerian dress for prep school events or how church ladies wore extravagant outfits to impress the congregation on Sundays. I understand the old attitude and yet I don’t.
That Goodison is a poet and not averse to fictionalizing and streamlining accounts helped her book enormously. She played with words by mixing the Queen’s English with a readable Jamaican patois which changed the rhythm and tone to capture a particularly Jamaican, specifically Hanoverian — different parts of the island have their own variations in dialect — moment or sentiment. As life then was more heavily influenced by Victorian England the two different speeches in juxtaposition reflected that. It is clear that Goodison loves words. At one point she lists the names of local produce for the pleasure of sound as well as more practical reasons, reminding me of one of her well-known poems, To Us, All Flowers are Roses. In her love for words she continues to showcases the islanders’ creativity, our spirit and ingenuity to ourselves as well as others.
She has a judicious sense of what readers would find interesting. I cannot stress enough how vital a skill this is for someone writing on things that personally concern her. The writer may find every minute detail and throwaway incident riveting while the outsider is left to fan herself, dream about mocha frappuccinos and wonder why she tolerates such minutiae from anyone not related by blood or marriage. Goodison is up front about embellishing parts of her mother’s life, adjusting timelines. One is not perturbed not only because the seamless narrative pulls one in from start to finish or because one gets a good idea of what is fictionalised from the whimsical way she depicts certain scenes, but because, for a reader like me and a book like this a strict adherance to facts is not necessary for Goodison to record her mother’s life as she perceives it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year — I’ve already leant my copy out (I never do this) and have been singing its praises to any willing ear. (For an example of everything I’ve mention read this excerpt.)
It is too bad that this book came out long after Drumblair — Manley could have learned a lot from how Goodison wrote her tale. I have no idea whether any part of Drumblair is intentionally fictionalized. On certain subjects like Bustamante‘s character and his political style she readily admits her family’s bias since her grandfather was his political rival — they both led the two rival political parties that still dominate Jamaica politics. Since she is dealing with such historically important political and cultural personages she has more responsibility to factual truth than a Jamaican poetess indulging in family memorabilia, maybe. (Although she writes, “This is not history. This is memory.”) In the end, I’m glad I read it.
But I’m surprised that it managed to win Canada’s Governor General award. If It weren’t for the Geoffrey Philp mention and the Manley name I don’t know how long I would have lasted. Rachel Manley has a tendency to give too much detail about memories that I, without the benefit of familiar relations, can only yawn and blink at. Cute episodes with housing staff which I know must be included to establish what living in the mighty Drumblair house was like became a bit tedious. At other times it’s the intricate political maneuvering that made my eyes glaze. When content becomes a morass I cannot reach for style because her prose is serviceable but not very light and nimble. Her voice comes through loud and clear but there’s not poetry, no grace, nothing that sets her a part as a Writer, yet she is a well-regarded poet. (Her editor probably deserves some free drinks, at least.) In my limited estimation Goodison is the better at writing in the different genres.
Still, the book isn’t all bad. I appreciate how she presents her family members in their full complexity, the good and the less so. They are loved but not idolized. Her grandparent’s married life, like all long lasting ones I imagine, is one of love, yes, but also of tolerance, accommodation of tiptoeing or strategic obliviousness to faults, of intimate knowledge coupled with incomprehensibility, right up to the end, of the other’s choices and habits. Theoretically we know this but it is not often portrayed in the media I absorb.
Much of the Manleys’ political life is marked by as many defeats as triumphs — Rachel describes it as a life “haunted by shadows” — with the most searing one that of Norman never winning an election after the country gained independence despite being a, clearly the family as presented her believing he was the, driving force behind the movement. A “Father of the Nation”. As a lawyer he took up the part of many of the lower classes and even helped to gain Bustamante’s freedom when he bucked up against the colonial authorities. But Bustamante’s charisma and earthy personality eclipses his rival’s contemplative, intellectual demeanor, and so one gains most of the spotlight while the other quietly goes on.
What was aching [Michael's] heart was the small margin of his father’s defeat, and the irony that his country would be led into independence by anyone but Norman Manley. He knew of no other colonial territory of that time where the man who led the fight for independence was not the acknowledged leader of the emerging nation, the runaway victor of its first election; Ghana’s Nkrumah, Nigeria’s Azikiwi, India’s Nehru– the names would hammer in his head.
Such a mixed life does not end on an upbeat, positive, everything nice note, either. Rachel describes herself as a troublemaker as a child, called “Miss Badness”, distant from her mother who lived in England, has an ambivalent relationship with her father, and a grandmother obsessed in making something of it (for the better, yes, but it was always a thing). At the book’s end circumstances are different but the main elements have not changed but are sustained by different issues. Rachel is a university student eager to join the Black Power radicals pushing for change except that her fair skin and connection to the establishment make her an outsider. Political rebellion is more complicated when your grandfather is tagged as one who is a new version of the old colonial style, that change cannot occur when one uses the master’s tools. “Patois should be taught in schools!” she cres defiantly. (It’s amusing and disheartening that such ideas are still being wrestled over. Even Nalo Hopkinson met up on it.) Edna declared
These young hot-heads were in their cradles when we were struggling for universal suffrage and workers rights’ and self-government! Who the hell do they think got the British out?
But images speak as loudly as words and Rachel noted that it was a woman who looked all but Caucasian with “flawless English” who says them.
As you can tell there’s a lot of historical information easily conveyed through Rachel’s life because her family looms large in events. I get a better idea of how our government gradually gained more and more power as opposed to the (understandably) simplified accounts I had before. There was even a predecessor to CARICOM – a failed West Indian federation built on ideals similar to the Pan Africanism movement — that I knew more about — in which Norman and Busta played leading roles, for a time. And I receive a much clearer picture of the People’s National Party’s (Norman’s group) socialist (some would say communist) background — a fact darkly hinted at, its lasting impact on Jamaica argued over in the Jamaica Observer’s opinion pages which I read in my teen years without true understanding. I even learnt the origins of a certain “fire and blood” speech given by Edward Seaga, a former Jamaican PM, which I remember hearing about as a child, again with no clue.
It is very strange to read about your country’s beginnings and have it feel so…recent. (My mother lived in pre-independence) To read about persons deliberately, actively, maybe even self-consciously trying to be Jamaican, to figure out what that even is. Some of the most tantalizing bits were Rachel’s brief, intermittent descriptions of the island’s nascent artistic movement, of Edna’s interactions with artists and writers, of her nurturing of new ones. Most, if not all of the poetry she and Norman quite is either by Browning, who had a Jamaican wife (didn’t know that), or Mike Smith and George Campbell, friends of theirs who were also involved in the project of being Jamaican by creating Jamaican art. Roger Mais gets name checked in Edna’s encounter a few rastas who temporarily squatted in her studio and had a fondness for her sculpture “Samson”, the blunter, roughter counterpart to the more delicate “Delilah” which was the crowd favourite. (It’s obviously an allusion to Brother Man but must be one to Black Lightning as well — too coincidental otherwise.) I’d have loved to read more about that.
Yes, Drumblair was definitely a fruitful, rewarding read. But it’s no Harvey River.
*What is up with weird, inexplicable title changes and ugly foreign covers? Poor British and Americans. :P
My small press reading tally for the month was unspectacular. Out of 9 (!) reads only two could count unless one stretched the definition to include university presses. (OUP’s Persuasion classics edition which I can’t say I was too impressed with.) The two romances were impulse reads finished within a day each. (One great, one blah.) Three books were for for a requested review and the SF novel was a surprise appearance.
Excuses out of the way I can pay attention to one of my reads that did count, Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon, translated by Norman Rush. (Yes, imprints are “small presses” on my blog for March.) He is an in-house favourite at NYRB classics or at least the editor’s favourite. The imprint is fairly successful at getting periodicals to direct some attention to his work when it releases a new edition, the NYRB itself a sure retainer of the books’ introductions. For the first time I hit on a female author from their catalogue whose work did not immediately impress — I intend to try again — so I decided to favour a male.
Comparison of the French and English titles along warrants some fruitful attention. Coup de chaleur means heatstroke; the book’s French title is Coup de lune. However, “Moonstroke” isn’t a very fetching title. “Tropic Moon” may at first seem inexact, a bit off-target, except that it isn’t once you start reading. One already gets the heat factor from the word “tropic” and throughout most of the book the naive, beleaguered young hero, Joseph Timar, complains about the sun’s harrowing intensity in Gabon. At the end the meaning is clinched when an unravelled Timar leaves Libreville, the country’s capital, on a shop, and overhears someone ironically ask a lieutenant still wearing his sun helmet at night: “Afraid of moonstroke?” Even without the original French one could piece it all together — it was because I had that I sought out the novel’s original title to see if it confirmed my ideas.
Why all this fuss about the title? At that aforementioned moment near the story’s end Timar fits rather neatly into the addled, crazy definition of moonstruck, fresh from a bout of dengue fever and a mental breakdown from living in a corrupt, racist French colonial outpost. Even then Simenon’s choice of using the moon is curious because the sun is the book’s more prominent celestial body, if you go by by the number of times its mentioned. Set in the early 1930s Europeans still retain that curious view that the tropical sun had harmful psychological effects. They looked down on creoles (Caribbean persons of European descent) as strange others not quite as refined, civilised and as normal as true Euros and this was partly explained by the hot climate. Charlotte Brontë incorporated this view into her depiction of Bertha Mason and her Jamaican family; Rhys expounded on (and undermined) it in Wide Sargasso Sea. (I’d like to review it but I lost my notes.) Using “moonstruck”, wholly appropriate on one hand with the moon as a symbol associated with illness and the female gender which links to Timar’s disastrous relationship with Adèle (to name a few instances), on the other hand serves as a diversionary prop there to shift attention from all the serious events that transpired in daylight. Yet that fit as well because Timar, at the end, was in full denial, cryptically announcing to himself and others that “It doesn’t exist!” His brain, perhaps, in retreat to protect him from past experience, to allow him to heal.
Simenon steadily lays the pressure on from the beginning. The novel opens with Timar worriedly asking himself, “Was there really any reason for him to be so anxious? No. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened.” But the anxiety behind each word is palpable as he recalls the excitement he felt during his arrival only to have it collapse two pages later in acknowledgement of a yet unexplained danger. You can tell this isn’t going to be a story with a happy ending; the story justifies it though, makes it a necessity, rather than some dourness thrown in to lend the tale faux gravitas. (A problem in some contemporary fiction: Haweswater was great up until the epilogue when Hall threw in a random death to force some arbitrary pattern on to the text. ) Timar’s uncle got him a job in Gabon with SACOVA, a logging company, and at first he tries to approach the trip as a kind of vacation or adventure, out to experience the strange but thrilling colonial life.
What a sight! This was the real Africa! In the café with the African masks on the wall, Timar cranked up the old gramophone. He felt like a real colonial.
He quickly gets a reality check on how things are run, the disconnect between the head offices and the lowly minions, when a SACOVA employee in Libreville laughs at his unexpected arrival, explains that there is no able boat to get him into the interior which will remain so for many weeks and, anyway, the man he is supposed to replace threatens to shoot anyone who makes the attempt. After four days of aimlessness, familiarising himself with the very small town, there was little left to do than to end up in bed with Adèle, the hotel owner, a married woman about twice his age (he’s 23) who walks around in a long black silk dress under which she may or may not be naked. In fact, she seduces him.
She is his main entry into Libreville’s world, not least because she allegedly slept with every able bodied (white) man available. Timar is largely passive through it all, observing and being manoeuvred into stranger and more shocking experiences; similar to Murakami Haruki’s heroes except that Simenon’s created world is claustrophobic and the character’s passiveness is a vital survival mechanism.
Expectedly, he does not initially see the African’s as three dimensional persons like himself. His first of one who carries him from his ship to the shore when he arrived is of a “naked arm, a black arm” that pulls him into the boat, who then is simply a “black” who takes him to shore. The problem is that the French residents are as strange, a strangeness of moral turpitude; damaging because the white workers are untroubled by their part in it but the government officials disingenuous superiority mask their own active enforcement of the underhanded system. Because Timar is an outsider with no fervent hatred of black Africans (he passively absorbed the prevailing ideas as most everyone else) when one of Adèle’s black servants is murdered he cannot blithely shrug it off like the rest. He has an inkling of who the murderer is, which grows into a certainty. Everyone else knew from the start who did it, including the police, who are willing to entertain other explanations since the murderer is white.
He does not expect this. Well, no one expects murder but he does not expect to recognise it as a symptom of the society’s more malignant condition. His inexperience makes him vulnerable and his infatuation with Adèle leaves him even more exposed because, despite the needling anxiety, the relentless sun beating down through the flimsy protection of his sun helmet, he tries to live in the miasma. The sun figuratively does its best to pierce through Timar’s assumptions about colonial life and his futile hopes and desire about his future prospects with Adèle. Ironically, the moments when this does occur and he gains further insight result in physical sickness. He joins with her in a risky scheme, with the help of family influence and money, to buy a concession miles from Libreville, accessible by boat. During the trip on the river they make a stop at a village and Adèle keeps an appointment that she initially refuses to admit happened and then denies its importance. In frustration and anger he is careless about skin protection and contracts dengue fever. Near the end he eventually buckles under the pressure of carrying on the act in an oppressively hot courtroom where Adèle is on the stand at the trial for Thomas’ murder. An African man from the same village as Thomas is the defendant in the case, sold out by a bribed tribal leader. Adèle’s husband fell sick and eventually died from a recurrent illness on the same night Thomas was murdered. It was too much to hope that Timar could have taken it for omen it was.
In what I think is characteristic of Simenon’s roman durs moral enlightenment, truth and virtue are not liberators but simply harbingers of other miseries. In Tropic Moon no one else but the hero is interested in such unworthy pursuits and they will turn viciously turn on anyone who dares to do so. It’s grimly humorous that it is Adèle who simultaneously entangles him in her affairs yet tries to foster his ignorance to protect him from its effects out of what I think is true affection. She is attracted to him because of his adolescent air and wishes to somehow preserve that quality.
It’s a very short novel, almost a novella at 133 pages, written in a simple prose like Murakami except that Simenon’s isn’t plain at all. His descriptive prose is light on the details but the absence is enigmatic. His withholding of information forces one to concentrate on what he does point while constantly wondering about what he’s only implied or left out altogether. It creates a mystery both out of the sentences, words containing hidden meanings; the brief scenes pregnant with clues, the characters making hidden gestures and coded remarks; the plot itself as Simenon dabbles the murderer’s identity here and there. It heightens my interest in his mystery books, his “entertainment” novels — they must be very good.
The brevity also acts as a way to measure Timar’s changing attitudes toward the black locals. From the abstract black arm at the beginning to the more fully drawn sailors who take him down on his last trip on the river from the concession back to Libreville.
An immense feeling of peace, that’s what he was experiencing, but he peace tinged with sadness — he didn’t know why. He had tenderness to spare within him, though it lacked a precise object, and it seemed to him that he was on the verge of understanding this land of Africa, which had provoked him so far to nothing but an unhealthy exaltation.
The river was calm, and the blacks steered the canoe to the bank and tied it up. Timar wasn’t scared, he didn’t feel the least twinge of apprehension, though he was the only one there who didn’t speak the language. To the contrary — he felt as though they’d all taken him under their wing, like a child entrusted to their care.
He doesn’t turn into a humanitarian but his familiarising time with them plays a role in the courtroom scene where he cannot stand to be silent as everyone seems set to ignore the confused accused and his mother, there with only a translator to help them, as they plead his innocence.
This impression may be coloured by the biographical articles I’ve read on Simenon but I detected a confident arrogance in the story’s short length as well, as if he wished to prove to himself and to others that he could create a complex, weighty work without resorting to 500 pages of elaborate sentences and an extensive vocabulary. That grabbed my attention, making me more alert from the beginning.
Timar’s alertness is more costly. His growing “understanding of this land Africa” leads him to what he feels is a temporary rejection of its existence as he leaves its shores, kicked out by annoyed officials who don’t really want the right answers to their questions. French West Africa was a land and represented a future that he wanted nothing to be a part of and seems to hold a French bourgeois life as the antidote.
Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case has a somewhat similar theme and plot: a famous Catholic architect abandons a successful life in Europe for the numbing anonymity of anywhere, Congo just happening to be the destination available when he went to the airport. Timar is Catholic too. The difference is that Greene’s book is more hopeful despite the tragic ending. He allows his defeatist protagonist to temporarily achieve a reconciliation with his past. Greene, from the beginning, does not even spare him from the lightly mocking tone he applies to a narrow-minded Catholic priest who likes to fancy himself a martyr, or a bellicose, egotistical colonial. For Simenon religion is just another part of the setting with no impact on the thoughts or morals of any characters. Your conscience is your only guide and if it does it’s job it will be a painful process from beginning to end.
For more discussion on this book check out the Slaves of Golconda blog and forum.
Rereading The Stone Angel was a repetitive experience. My reactions moved along a similar trajectory to the first time when I knew nothing about the novel. The beginning, I thought, was nice enough but it did not promise much excitement. Doubt lingered as to whether this Canadian classic would prove to be much more than a decent read. Over time I became more aware of how the Hagar Shipley character had completely won me over. As I turned the last page my stomach was tense and filled with awe, anxiety, painful pleasure and the knowledge that I had reached another personal literary touchstone. My last had been William Blake and Ayi Kwei Armah in 6th form.
My other rereading experiences last year, for pleasure, held a wholly different quality, in part because they were 3rd or 4th rereads unlike The Stone Angel, my first. Lines in Jane Eyre and The Lord of the Rings echoed like old friends as I read along; and though my LOTR reread corrected me on or reminded me of several story details obscured by repeated viewings of the extended DVD editions, my sojourn was a comfortable one of familiarity. With the Laurence novel it was as though I had opened a new book.
That impression can also be explained by the fact that I am a different reader now, post-blog, compared to the early ’00s. I was not such an actively critical reader, keenly aware of the possibility of patterns and connections, or noticing prose style.
One response that carried over from the first read was my intense reaction to Hagar’s vulnerability as an elderly person dependent on others. She is 90 years old at the start of the novel. As the first person narrator, we are privy to each painful humiliation when her mind or body fails her — she who is a human realisation of her Scottish ancestor’s family motto “Gainsay who dare” — and she is forced to depend on her daughter-in-law Doris to dress her for bed, to take her to the bathroom, sometimes to remind her of where they are. When she accidentally falls it takes both Doris and Marvin, Hagar’s son, to lift her up, and then they speak in front of her, about her, “as though I weren’t here, as though it were a full gunnysack they dragged from the floor”. I don’t often come across such old protagonists in fiction, especially one whose elderly life the author gives as much attention to as the earlier past.
What struck me as new were the notable moments in the novel when Hagar recalls a hymn. They provoke the reader to consider how she lived her life in strict opposition to the reverent sentiments the hymns conveyed, the novel’s overall tragic irony.
The first came in Hagar’s first long recollection about her childhood. She was 8 and at church with her father who just heard his name called out in a list of major church donors. He remarked to Hagar “with modestly bowed head” that he, Jason Currie, and the lawyer Luck McVitie (called out first) must have given the highest amounts. Then they sang a hymn adapted from Psalm 121:
Unto the hills around do I lift up
My longing eyes.
O when for me shall my salvation come,
From when arise?
From GOD the LORD doth come my certain aid,
From GOD the LORD, who heaven and earth hath made.
Currie was one of the many Scots who travelled to Canada in the 19th century to make a new life for themselves and family in the prairies. He stressed his success in the merchant business as a self-made one to his family both to buttress his ego and to pass on that pioneering spirit to his children. He coached Hagar and her two older brothers, Matt and Dan, in their family history and exhorted them to expect no one but themselves to help achieve their own success. In any case, as one of the prominent town families in Manawaka, Manitoba, there weren’t that many others around who were fit company. Whatever religious ritual he indulged in was for tradition and public appearances. In childish trust Hagar described her father thusly:
Auntie Doll was always telling us that Father was a God-fearing man. I never for a moment believed it, of course. I couldn’t imagine Father fearing anyone, God included, especially when he didn’t even owe his existence to the Almighty. God might have created heaven and earth and the majority of people, but Father was a self-made man, as he himself had told us often enough.
Hagar took to that stubborn, ambitious egotism wholesale and in some moments it is clear that her father regrets that the two older sons were less dynamic and outgoing or that she had the misfortune of being born a girl. Her mother died in childbirth and, curiously, Hagar fixated on her as symbol of everything she did not want to be — passive, meek, weak and amenable — for look how she ended up. Instead, Hagar was haughty, proud, and loathed to humble herself to anyone whether it was to apologize for a mistake, for impulsively inflicted pain, to admit to a fear or to face such a weakness in others. Her constant refrain throughout the novel is “I never could.” She said it as if, for her, it was physically impossible.
Her older brothers, in physique and manner, were more similar to her mother. Dan, especially, was a sickly child but Hagar believed he faked illness more often than not in order to be pampered. It took unfortunately drastic circumstances to convince her otherwise. One day while playing with friends out on the ice Dan falls into an unseen hole and catches pneumonia. Hagar and Matt, conscious of their father’s acute sensitivity to public exposure, never think of taking Dan to the nearest house but bundle him straight home. Their father lectures and Auntie Doll tends to him and all seems well until the next day when his fever gets much worse and he becomes delirious. No adult is there with them so Hagar runs to get the doctor but he is out of town and, due to the weather, won’t be back soon. Their father is working late. Matt, probably recognising how serious things are, does not send for their father, for that isn’t who Dan wants. Apparently Dan had been calling out for his mother, who died when he was four. He still kept one of her old plaid shawls. Matt asks Hagar if she could wear it and pretend for a while that she’s their mother for Dan’s comfort. But she could not bring herself to do it. To even imagine herself as that frail, weak spectre, everything she rejected as wrong, to someone who had “inherited” that frailty “was beyond me”. She cried but she refused.
Matt does it for Dan and holds him as he dies. Through that and other hardships Hagar learned that there was no indomitable God keeping her and her family “preserv[ing] you from all evil”. And even if he was offering a helping hand she would refuse it for that would place her in submission.
In many scenes she rejects God and his expectations in favour of her own will. When, in old age, Doris called over Reverend Troy to talk with Hagar, her thoughts are dismissive and condescending, with the odd moment of pity for the intimidated minister.
“Sometimes, you know, Mrs. Shipley, when we accept the things which we can’t change in this life, we find they’re not half as bad as we thought.”
“It’s easy enough for you to say.”
“Oh yes, indeed.” His smooth face goes pink as a Mother’s Day carnation.
“Have you tried asking God’s help? Prayer can do wonders, sometimes, in easing the mind.”
So wistful is his voice that I’m on the verge of promising I’ll try. Then the lie seems not inexpensive but merely cheap.
“I’ve never had much use for prayer, Mr. Troy. Nothing I prayed for ever came to anything.”
“Perhaps you didn’t pray for the right things.”
“Well who’s to know? If God’s a crossword puzzle, or a secret code, it’s hardly worth the bother, it seems to me.”
“I only meant we should pray for strength,” he says, “not for our own wishes.”
“Oh well, I’ve prayed for that too, in my time, but I never thought it made much difference…I prayed like sixty when trouble came, as every person does…But nothing ever came of it.”
As her name suggested she is not counted among the tribe of Israel, God’s chosen.
The second hymn occurred later in the novel, this time in her old age, and she is the one who sang it. She learned, after noting the meaningful glances Doris and Marvin exchanged, and subtle hints from Doris’ pastor, that she was to be sent to a nursing home. To regain a moment of freedom she plans and successfully executes an escape to a beach where she spends two nights in two different abandoned buildings with only a small bag of provisions and a bucket of rain water. During this time she slips in and out of lucidity, mentally chiding Doris for keeping the heater too low. When she is cognizant she reproves Marvin for his tardiness in locating her. In an awkward, unsure moment at sunset she looks at how the sun’s rays hit the abandoned fishing equipment that surrounds her “filled with shadows” and sings a verse of “Abide with me”. (Full lyrics here.)
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
She gains no comfort from it, in fact, is bit embarrassed that she bothered at all. “I might as well be singing the directions from a knitting book, for all the good it’s doing me.” Hagar is no longer that “czarina” young girl secure in her place in the world and of her future. The hymn moves away from the triumphalism of Psalm 121’s “My help comes from the LORD/Who made heaven and earth” for the anxious plea behind “O Thou who changest not abide with me”. J.R. Watson’s commentary on the hymn that he wrote in The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study highlights almost too perfectly how it related to Hagar’s last days and how she and Henry Francis Lyte, the hymn writer, approached the circumstances in different ways.
Lyte was Scottish too and lived without a mother, in his case because his father separated from her and moved to Ireland with his son. Lyte never saw her again. His father also enacted a sort of separation from his son, only visiting him occasionally, and eventually presenting himself as his uncle and his new wife as Henry’s aunt. Watson asserts that this influenced Lyte’s work, coming through in his sensitive use of parental imagery with tender, protective overtones. “The Spirit of the Psalms” is considered Lyte’s best work, a collection which includes “Abide with me”. On that hymn Watson writes that
¹It is a reminder of the coming of darkness, of human loneliness and helplessness. In this situation, human beings become dependent on God, as a child looks to its mother or father when faced with the coming dark….The first lines signal to the reader that this is more than an evening hymn: it is a meditation on life, on its transience and its anxieties.
The bitter irony is that, even “with the coming dark”, Hagar strove to remain as independent as she could from everyone around her. And during her life she tried to wrangle those in whom she invested her affection into her ideas of them rather than make much effort to see who they truly were and wanted to be. She separated from her husband, Brampton Shirley, after about two decades and whisked her favourite son Johnny away to the coast in pursuit of the better life she thought he deserved, a move she never considered doing for her obedient, manageable Marvin who did all that she asked but was passed over. Johnny grew and went his own path which led him right back home to the old farm, wiped out by drought and depression, and his father. When Bram is near death Johnny tells her and she returns to confront an old, bowed man in whom little of Brampton Shirley remains. In a lucid moment in which he reveals feelings for her, feelings she somehow never discerned in all her years with him, she’s filled with a rage “not at anyone, at God, perhaps, for giving us eyes but almost never sight”.
What she did know and see was the “transience of life” but, although she seems to believe in heaven and hell, she fully expects to be sent to hell and one suspects that if God offered to forgive her she’d spit in his eye and reject his pity. Like Milton’s Lucifer — a comparison Laurence made in the novel — “To bow and sue for grace/With suppliant knee…/…that were low indeed,/That were an ignominy and shame beneath/This downfall”.
The last hymn occurs near the novel’s and Hagar’s end. Marvin and Doris find her and although she is relieved she cannot admit it and suggests with grim knowledge that no doubt they’re shipping her straight off to the prison of a nursing home. (A whole other essay could be done on the novel’s theme of imprisonment.) Marvin tells her that the doctor advised that it was too late for that she needed to be taken to the hospital. Hagar automatically complains about this prison change so Marvin, to end her complaints, reveals the (apparently dire) test results from the hospital that, from her reaction, are not unlike a death sentence.
In the hospital Reverend Trevor visits her for the last time while she is alive and, under pressure from her request, sings “All people that on earth do dwell”, (one of my favourites) based on Psalm 100. (Full lyrics here.)
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell;
Come ye before Him and rejoice.
At this moment Hagar has a kind of epiphany. She realises that, after everything, this is all that she had truly wanted “–simply to rejoice”. But because of her demonic pride it led her to a “wilderness” from which she never escaped. Her husband and favourite son Johnny had died, both of them not knowing how much she cared for them, how she was sorry, after all this time. And now she is alone.
One result of this is that she lies for the sake of her Marvin, bestowing a favour on him that she does not think, even now, that he deserves — as she likes to say, no one ever changes after any single moment of revelation — but the reader, with a clearer eye, knows is the simple truth. When he leaves the room a nurse says to him
“She’s got an amazing constitution, your mother. One of those hearts that just keeps on working, whatever else is gone.”
A pause, and then Marvin replies.
“She’s a holy terror,” he says.
For Hagar there is no better description. Even in her last moments she struggles to assert her will, her independence, her singularity, never giving, challenging everyone in so many ways to Gainsay who dare! Dylan Thomas’ famous poem that Margaret Laurence quoted at the beginning of the novel, seemed to have been written for Hagar Shipley.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
¹Watson, J.R. The English Hymn: A Critical and Historical Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
January turned out to be psychological fiction month. The novels by Pierre Jean Jouve, Jean Rhys, Ana Clavel, Graham Greene and, most recently, Alberto Moravia, were all about their characters changing psychological states, whether they went from fairly good to bad or vice versa, were conflicted from the beginning, or started off questionably and descended from there. In some the writer charts the character’s life from childhood to the end of their life and/or the novel, for others he is already an adult: cynical, bruised, fatalistic, ironic.
Greene, in A Burnt-Out Case, had the plainest prose, a subdued, determinedly unflashy style which had an inviting simplicity he used to great effect. Dramatic, emotionally and thematically high stakes scenes were more memorable for the contrast. It often undercut Queery’s melodramatic pessimism, giving his sincere lamentations an adolescent, angsty tone I couldn’t help but chuckle at and to which the pragmatic monks and motivated yet cynical Dr. Colin responded in a patient (and in the doctor’s case sometimes impatient), no-nonsense manner. What it did best was to lay every character bare, warts and beauty spots, bulky egos, not presented all at once, but readily detected if one made the effort. A Burnt-Out Case was one of two in the lot that was written in the third-person.
So was Ana Clavel’s but in Desire and Its Shadow it provided little distance between her protagonist Soledad and the reader. In that respect she fell in with Pierre Jean Jouve Paulina 1880 and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as intense, heady, emotionally charged and dramatic with a perilous edge. Clavel is at the headiest, steamiest end of the spectrum not only because her novel was more erotic but because she never departed from Soledad’s perspective and also seemed to be less in control of the novel’s intricate structure. Jouve, at the other end, switched narrative perspective, adopted different tones from the formal and distant, to the fervent, to resigned and subdued, and was master at every moment.
Wide Sargasso Sea fell in-between. In the novel’s three parts Antoinette Mason dominates the first and last and shared space with Rochester in part two. I’m tempted to conlude that that was done in deliberate contrast to her complete silence in Jane Eyre in which she is nothing but a monstrous, threatening figure. Wide Sargasso Sea‘s imagery had a more primitive, mythological strain that strongly recalled Daphne du Maurier’s “The Pool”, a short story. Antoinette, her mother and a few servants live on an ill-kept estate. The description of the grounds provoke images of an overgrown post-fall Eden from which the inhabitants weren’t expelled because remaining there was punishment enough. Antoinette never has the giddy monologues of Jouve’s young Isabella or Soledad’s extravagantly imaginative, adventurous inner world. What struck me most about her story was the ever-present tinge of melancholy, her quiet acceptance of isolation and rejection. And, of course, the reader who knows Jane Eyre is aware from the first word of her fate.
Moravia’s The Ghost at Noon (Penguin title), translated by Angus Davidson, is different specimen. It felt the most modern, closer to my reality because, although set in post-WWII Italy, Riccardo and his wife Emilia live in the city (Rome), drive cars, worry about the rent and similar mundane details. A Burnt-Out Case was modern too but set at a leproserie in Congo; Querry was a retired architect who, among other things, wrestled with the attention garnered because of his famous reputation, and though its all played out on a moral plane which is arguably something Moravia’s novel does as well…Riccardo, as a character, started out closer to the ground.
The Ghost at Noon is quieter too. I’m not sure what I mean by that, precisely. The main plot is the marriage’s breakdown and how in connection to that his perception of himself, his ideals, his entire world view changes, deteriorates, cheapens. Written solely from Riccardo’s perspective we are constantly privy to his thoughts and he is always thinking. In the middle of a conversation he will mentally break off to describe a memory that does not immediately appear connected to his present moment. So that all of those changes I mentioned are primarily presented and processed in his mind. The other novels are like that to a much lesser degree. Moravia creates this hyper lucidity by not depicting practically no significant external action. There is nothing to deflect our attention, no talking statues, ridiculous egotistical expatriates, trips to different islands that end in a cold attic. The single dramatic even that occurs near the end of the novel is overshadowed by one of Riccardo’s strangely realistic hallucinations during a boat trip that happened right before.
Riccardo himself is a rather impotent character, too, one who can only manage to adjust to or (try to) rebel against changes towards which others push him. That probably contributes to the novel’s quietness as well because, though he occasionally acts out, his more typical reaction is a bitter, brooding resignation.
The couple first lived in a lodge-house while Riccardo ekes out a living as a film critic at a second ranked newspaper and minor freelance assignments. What he really wants to do is write for the theatre. He sees himself as a prototype of the starved, refined intellectual who shuns the easy money of conventional trash and bourgeois lifestyle in lieu of something more elevated.
I had looked upon myself as an intellectual, a man of culture, a writer for the theatre — the ‘art’ of theatre, I mean — for which I had always had a great passion and to which I felt I was drawn by a natural vocation. This moral image, as I may call it, also had an influence on the physical image: I saw myself as a young man whose thinness, short sight, nervousness, pallor and carelessness in dress all bore witness, in anticipation, to the literary glory for which I was destined.
His wife was supportive, loving, and made the best of their living situation despite a deep desire to live in a place of their own, a desire Riccardo ascertains is closer to a passion near equal to theirs. She never expressed anything but a “modest displeasure” on occasion but he detects the issue’s importance to her and rents a flat beyond their means. The increase of financial pressure is partly relieved when Riccardo meets Battista, a film producer, around the same time and is hired as a script writer.
Riccardo starts out as a very sympathetic character. The poor guy seems to be trying his best and is so bewildered by his wife’s abrupt change in behaviour. He abandons his dream in order to fulfil hers, a move that embitters his world view to the point where he joins a political party solely out of discontent with his poverty and envy for those better off — an occurrence to which he never thought such a cultivated man as himself would be reduced. But there’s a scene in the first chapter, Riccardo’s memory of a dinner outing with Emilia and Battista, that establishes a sceptical distance which grows on the fuel of contempt. (That’s a much better title choice, btw.) It starts out irrationally, perhaps. The reader from the outset already know she’s going to read about a marriage in disarray due to the synopsis; in the moment it is less clear for Riccardo that he should have heeded his wife’s reluctance to travel with Battista in his two-seater while he hitched a cab (per Battista’s suggestion, of course). Doubt creeps in nevertheless and my responses become more and more mixed until I thought he deserved to be a cuckold (and worse).
To some extent its unfair because Emilia’s sudden contempt for her husband really does come out of nowhere. That’s obscured at the beginning because of that dinner outing scene and Riccardo’s subsequent attempts at reasoning out precisely where everything went wrong. One is prone to look for reasons and the reader, a little ahead, jumps to the same conclusions he does, ones that are initially rooted in concrete causes and eventually branch out until there appears to be no point to it at all. The first blatant sign that Emilia’s feelings have changed is on their first night in their new flat: she refuses to sleep with him on rotation of silly excuses (you snore, you wake up too early, we go to bed too late, the open shutters let in too much noise…). At that point Riccardo had yet to meet Battista. Throughout the novel, each time he confronts with a different or more fine-tuned reason for her feelings he sharply assesses her physical reactions, the light in her eyes, the way she turns her head, her hands, to know whether she’s being truthful.
Alongside this is an intriguing look at the film making business, intriguing because Moravia is rather scathing about the entire process and I have a mental association with Moravia and films. (I did not know why until I googled and saw that Jean Luc Godard and Bertolucci had adapted two of his novels for the screen, one of which I’d seen. )Riccardo becomes embittered by his job as a script writer because it offers no artistic control — all due is given to the director and he and the producer have final editing power — or satisfaction because he does made-to-order projects on committees in which he is usually the most talented (he says).
His second job from Battista, purported to be more serious fare, is an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. The neo-realist films currently being made, Battista opines, are too depressing, too fatalistic, not really “healthy” films for the populace. Look at the Anglos and their Bible movies — the Bible, now, there’s a “healthy” book and what is the Mediterranean people’s Bible? The Odyssey! He wants Riccardo to bring out the “poetry” of the book which amounts to a lot of spectacle, adventure, and bikini clad sirens. To help with the inspiration he and the director should stay at his Capri villa. (They both assume that Emilia is a recipient of the invitation.) The German director Rheingold, on the other hand, has treated the epic to a thoroughly Freudian analysis which, as he so accurately describes it, “takes it to pieces and then put it together again according to our modern requirements”. (Did you shudder at that? Me too. Laughed and shuddered.) It is all simply an inner drama of “conjugal repugnance” where Ulysses creates every excuse to avoid returning home to Penelope and everything in the epic is a “symbol of Ulysses’ subconscious”. He always speaks of it in private to Riccardo, in Rome and in Capri, as he intends to humour Battista until things move into his territory (the studio).
On a basic level the situation works as satirical take on film adaptations of literature, especially modern psychological takes on centuries old myths. (I found the approach similar to the recent take on Beowulf which Michael Drout expounded on in his review.) Of course, it doesn’t matter to Rheingold that he had to change part of the story for it to fit into his theory — that’s what it takes to make such “universal” texts relevant to contemporary audiences.
Things get more complicated when viewed in relation to Riccardo’s situation. And it becomes intimately so because Rheingold’s analysis of Ulysses’ character sounds strikingly similar to Riccardo himself. Instead of having Penelope’s suitors show up when Ulysses return they will instead be the indirect reason for his departure. Penelope is outraged at Ulysses’ mild, “civilized” response to the Suitors gestures. He does not want to cause a scandal and besides he knows that Penelope will be faithful so why should he make a fuss. Besides the gifts are nice so why don’t they just be reasonable about it. Penelope, characterised as the virtuous, traditional woman moved by blood and instinct rather than intellect — very similar to the way Riccardo thinks of Emilia — is first incensed at this and then contemptuous of such an unmanly response. So Ulysses leaves for the Trojan war — something a reasonable man would not voluntarily do if it was not necessary, per Rheingold — and on his reluctant return, to regain her favours, he resorts to the uncivilised act of violence.
I’m still juggling how to look at this. It’s tempting to take this as an inadvertently accurate take on the Molteni’s marriage, which I did for a while, until one recalls that Emilia’s contempt, or at least the first sign of change, occurred before the Battista problem appeared. Another part of Rheingold’s analysis was that for outsiders civilisation can look corrupt, ascribing this to Penelope, but that point fits Riccardo’s world view better. And in any case, isn’t this a critique we’re supposed to be making fun of? Things become even more entangled when one considers that Moravia’s novel itself could fit rather neatly into such a theory. Riccardo had stereotyped Emilia into that salt of the earth, peasant stock and there is Battista with his money, sports car and brutish physique.
In final answer to Rheingold’s Ulysses Riccardo recited lines from Dante’s Ulysses.
¹‘O brothers who have reached the west,’ I began,
‘Through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all:
So little is the vigil we see remain
Still for our senses, that you should not choose
To deny it the experience – behind the sun
Leading us onward – of the world which has
No people in it. Consider well your seed:
You were not born to live as a mere brute does,
But for the pursuit of knowledge and the good.’
It’s a poignant moment not only because he abandoned his ideals but that, there in Sunny Capri on Battista’s hospitality, a man who he respects but considers his intellectual inferior and the antithesis of his ideals, that he may not have possessed such strong ones in the first place; and worst of all is the probability that his last effort to regain them will be futile.
¹Taken from the bilingual edition of The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky.
A common problem in getting reviews up here is that I may feel that what I put down is not detailed or informative enough, so I let it fallow. This method does not have an impressive track record; often as not I never get around to reviewing that book. I felt doubly burdened with Desire and Its Shadow because it’s an Early Reviewers copy, which made me feel obligated to give Clavel’s novel all that I could, especially since it was a translation and published by an independent.
The problem is that the book was not well translated and the copy editors gave up about halfway through, forcing me to correct spellings, insert missing words and punctuation until I gave up in resignation. With a promising novel like that I would not have minded, would have even eagerly returned to the first page after finishing the last, except for the prospect that a second reading would make things no clearer, that all fault lay with the translator.
It was not a foregone conclusion because Clavel wrote a story dense with shadowy imagery, symbolic dreams, and many literary and Mexican historical references. It’s framed within Soledad García’s dreams. In them she is invisible in downtown Mexico city. She reacts giddily, at first, using the opportunity to shoplift a cloud photography book and play pranks on a traffic policeman, but becomes anxious as her inability to be seen by anyone (except a street person who she briefly meets), the uncomfortable sensation of being thoroughly looked through eventually unmoors her identity, her sense of her very existence.
Scenes from this world open the first three parts of the novel and comprise all of part four. In the first three the reader moves over into what would normally be considered reality at different stages of Soledad’s life: her father’s funeral from her childhood; her affair with Peter Nagy, a Hungarian photographer, at university; and her job at the Palacio de Belles Artes. Essentially, it is a bildungrosman, an intense, psychological portrait of a woman who is both highly imaginative, predisposed to retreat within her inner mental sanctum, and unsure, indecisive, continually struggling to figure out who she is and what she truly desires; and which of the desires are the least destructive.
Paulina 1880 is similar, for it is also a novel that long occupies a young woman’s mind from childhood, allowing the reader an intimate look at her struggles with conflicting desires. However, for all of Jouve’s language play, on a fundamental level once detects a clear, honed presence, the author’s measured control. That is in no small part due to Rosette Letellier’s and Robert Bullen’s excellent translation skills. Clavel’s novel cannot give a similar boast.
She also went much further in order to portray Soledad’s double personality. Paulina feels divided within herself, with one side of her never subdued for long before the other swings into dominance. Clavel externalizes Soledad’s division by giving her an alter ego. Lucía was the name of a doll her father gave her as a birthday gift when she was younger. As Clavel is wont, this is not revealed until a few chapters into the book. On the first page one meets Lucía in the guise of an imaginary friend. For much of that period Lucía appears to be Soledad’s bolder, more outgoing side, able to earn approval from a disapproving mother and aunt, or daring to go into Miguel’s bedroom, the older brother of her friend, Rosa, before going back to her Chinese vase in which she sleeps with a dragon.
Such moments are mild enough when she’s a child but become more disconcerting as she grows older and behaves as if Lucía was an actual human being able to interact with others. Lucía reminds Soledad of events (usually sexual adventures) that Soledad cannot recall until a young man’s wave on a street, or the sight of a tall glass tower jogs her memory.
Clavel constructs this second reality with an elaborateness that lends it verisimilitude. It is probably wrong to try and number them since they bleed over into each other. What I initially took for dream sequences in which Soledad’s insecurities and memories were represented by this invisible figure perched on top of a historical monument contemplating suicide, or a train of memories on which films of past moments are played (echoed later when Soledad’s path is blocked by a train before she first meets the carelessly callous Nagy), turn out to be the present — Mexico in the 80s. Here only a few persons can see her: a blind man who helps the illiterate fill out papers or send messages, a street performer, a member of a child gang, and a statue of General Leandro Valle, a respected figure in the La Reforma movement in which the liberals tried to hold out against the imperialist backed conservatives during Mexico’s early tumultuous independence.
Her first reality, while often written in a clear and comparatively mundane manner — moments I sought with relief –was also riddled with symbols and metaphorical language that hinted at her other netherworld. Soledad imagines her desire as a dragon in the vase, one that she tries to keep banked or avoid for fear of being devoured, for fear of her desire to be devoured. When she is more inclined to pursue but meets up on obstacles, its represented as a labyrinth that she must navigate her way through with the help of Lucía. On the other hand the vase is also a place in which she seeks sanctuary, or clarity, help, because Lucía is there. Soledad refers to her home as a “house of portals” which prompts one to think of it as a series of different entrances and the implication that simply walking through her house could be a journey of sorts.
No word is used as often as “shadows”, “darkness”, and its variations. It emphasises the meaning of Soledad’s name, “solitude”, and she is often seen to be sitting in her room in darkness, seeking the darkness of the vase, only lit by the dragon’s red glow. Her sexual relationships, at least the bad ones, are described in terms of “shadows of eclipses”. All of her friends in part four could be said to dwell among the shadows of society’s margins, wandering in alleys, quickly running to hiding places, living underground. Even her job at the Palacio de Belles Artes involves photographing certain sections of the subterranean paths that exist underground.
Really, if I were to go into even half of the ways or number of times Clavel resorts to such metaphor I could write up another essay. (I scribbled on a page, “I get it, god, shadows, darkness, penumbras, ok! you can ease it up.”) One would tend to think of it as something that represents murkiness, doubt, indecisiveness and so on, and for Soledad this is so, but offers a comforting seclusion as well. Conversely for Nagy, her first major love, a married man who saw her as little else but a photography subject and sexual object, it clarifies, it brings details into relief.
At his lecture Soledad enters just as he plunges the classroom into darkness to show some stills.
“Other photographers speak of light, I will speak of the nature of darkness. It isn’t light that defines objects, but the lack of it. Blind light, shadows create the range of colours. Volumes, textures, feelings emerge from cutting off light. Da Vinci said that shadows are more powerful than light…”
Arguably, another world is related in Soledad’s stories. She loves them, would often ask Peter in bed to tell her some, and one of her fondest memories is about her father doing the same (but err…under different circumstances, obviously). Soleded writes her own stories, for herself, short takes in which she may re-imagine, remap and reconsider her experiences. They complement the main narrative, often recasting certain moments into more abstract, symbolic fiction that work better at conveying her complex feelings about, say, her youthful (early teens I hazard) random sexual encounter with an older man; or they reveal important information obliquely referred to in the main, like the events behind Miguel’s, Rosa’s brother, death in a political riot. Clavel scatters these throughout, usually situating them fairly close to the relevant incidents.
What’s the point of all this relentless ambiguity? It may be that Clavel wanted to accentuate how words can come close but ultimately fall short of capturing reality, and how easily they can be manipulated to deceive through simplification and reduction. To be “realist” one needs complexity. Matías, the blind “professional scrivener” in part four tells Soledad
I return again to my taste for fairy tales, not for their happy, cohesive endings, but their prophetic symbolism…I think the fate of man didn’t begin so much with the expulsion from paradise but with the birth of language: the tiger ceased being that bag of muscle and bone with prodigious reflexes and became a word with which we grasped its fleetness and threatening reality. Well, when we don’t pay attention to words, the last redoubt where we may seize reality, when the dead of San Juan or those from ’68 can be counted on two hands in the official version, then we’re lost, as if filter upon filter were placed between us and the name of reality…those in command believe that anguish is exorcized with veils, falsehoods, lies.
I searched Google for other reviews of Desire and Its Shadow and luckily found Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s critique for The Modern Language Review Oct. 2007 issue. She helped to clarify my ideas and drag me down from the symbolic clouds long enough to pay attention the novel’s more concrete elements. Lavery had the advantage of reading the original Los deseos y su sombre (1999) and knowing more about Mexican literature.
For instance, I did not know that male Spanish-American writers so dominated the literary scene because the fiction of their female counterparts were seen as “light weight”. She highlighted the political and sociological — how Soledad struggled against her mother’s conservative ideas of femininity (one that dictated women should shut up before men’s superior judgement and not bother to attend university because, for women, it’s no good); the union strikes at government institutions and how the conservative establishment tried to infiltrate and interfere; and the low economic and social status of the invisible Soledad’s friends.
Lavery also introduced me to what appeared to an entirely different novel. She framed it to suit a psychological and feminist reading so she drew on scenes that had any gender clashes and whatnot. One of these was a scene in Soledad’s youth when a “Desconocido” brutally raped her. Wha!? What the heck is she…oh. That sexual encounter with a stranger that seemed to be her first. I assumed it was her first because she mentioned some moments of pain, but they came of as kind of metaphorical and….well you judge it for yourself:
In the dim light, Sol focuses on the disparate silhouettes of this girl and this man who leans forward to whisper something in her ear and at the same time kiss her on the cheek, who lifts the hem of her rather short dress, and puts his hand up it….
Before going on (the excited look on the man’s face, the girl’s shining eyes, the silvery coins he offers her all rush together), Soledad resists believing everything which will be determined by this scene. All right, she asks alone with her shadow, how many people have desperately gaped into the caverns of sex? For whom does the anguish of one’s own unknowns prove easy? Who isn’t a plaything of another’s desire? And above all, who doesn’t enjoy being so?
Here’s another passage, an excerpt from Soledad’s story of the event:
The man’s lip search me out again, his hairy mouth searches for my shortened breath and makes it even more laboured. I don’t know why his hands have so many pin-shaped fingers, and why the pain of feeling myself go beyond myself is something that has little in common with pain. I’m just a doll. Immobile, waiting in a dark station for the man to finish constructing a tunnel in me…Then I get dressed. But my body is still all a beating heart. I crawl to my bed before the dragon smells my steaming bloody. The coins remain in my hands. They’ve lost their splendour. Now they only cast their rays upon the flaming darkness of guilt.
Does any of that sound like “extreme sexual violence” to you? Is it…is the tunnel construction and “pin-shaped fingers”? If Jay Miskowiec managed to get that completely wrong, and there’s no reason to doubt Lavery, what else have I missed? Why am I even bothering to review the damn thing?
I still managed to discern the makings of a “highly sophisticated novel”, per Lavery’s description. The novel’s architecture alone was a marvel, positively baroque with the implication that in parts it was a little overdone. I haven’t even covered all of it, like the Greek mythology references, for instance. Soledad, the tale’s hero, was a satisfying mixture of potential, strength, and weakness, who would fail to rise to a particular courageous moment and try to seek some restitution. I’m still not sure what to make of part four, the realisation that she is presently invisible, perhaps even dead already, although not irretrievably lost. I’d make more of an effort to figure it out if it wouldn’t mean rereading sentences like this: “Unexpectedly now experts, his fingers knead with the will of a crumb that in the end drags from me a groan.”
Yeah, I have no fucking idea, either.
At one point, Paulina 1880 struck me as one of those properly “French” novels about romantic love: all passion, tortured feelings, the world’s fate hung on the outcome of the couple’s affair, melodramatic yet plausible, the way only the French could manage. Not only could I merrily tag along, I could do so without wanting to murder the characters, have someone else (including themselves, suicide always being an option for this sort) do it for me. (That was my reaction to Wuthering Heights.)
It didn’t turn out to be that kind of novel really. It had more in common with The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Both feature a deeply religious female character who engages in religious immoral behaviour and who punish themselves by ultimately rejecting that life at a moment when all is within their grasp. But Paulina Pandolfini’s end is more horrifying because she arguably deals with less societal obstacles, has a clear opportunity to solve that problem and re-enter the mainstream — a path not open to Radclyffe’s Stephen — and the frenzied repression of earthly desire in a futile effort to attain a celestial one pushes her to extreme mental instability.
Jouve tells the story in short chapters with a paragraph, sometimes a page that occasionally extends to three. He switches perspectives unannounced so that within a paragraph or even a sentence one reads both the narrator’s and Paulina’s or Count Michele Cantarini’s thoughts. This informality extends to syntax. Complete sentence structures may be deemed unnecessary and a description of a rural village is captured in brief phrases, one following the other like a picturesque list. Other times they may flow into each as Jouve often finds a comma handier than a period, particularly during Paulina’s giddy, effervescent monologues. He is obviously interested in language’s malleability and suitability for what he wants to convey. In later chapters, when Paulina seeks spiritual abandonment in a convent, her thoughts become so abstract and wholly processed through biblical allegory that they’re written as poems.
Tone is also a key element. The first chapter is a simple, methodical “inventory” of a blue room and a description of its interior design. It wouldn’t be out of place in a high end housing catalogue. Jouve enlivens the prose in the second by directly addressing the reader with a question, as if one is in the room with him noticing a shadow pass over a glass globe. Over the next few he is in a typical “story-teller” mode, describing select moments from Paulina’s childhood, with the first hint of the loosening prose in a chapter about her fascination with tortured saints. The last of the restrictions disappear in her intoxicated monologue at age 19 — still early in the book, page 22 — where she goes into raptures about her well-formed breasts, her love for God, her fascination with a doomed romantic love and, obliquely, her growing attachment to Count Cantarini, a 40 year old family friend.
All through the novel I was struck by how purposely attuned Jouve was to language’s potential and how he exploited it so perfectly from brief chapter to chapter — the shortest ones are among the most impressive and important.
Paulina is a keenly sensual, egotistical, impassioned character inclined to extremes. Raised in mid-19th century Milan in a respectable, wealthy family, it is no surprise that she is religious. But her fervent inclinations lead to adoration of saints who were martyrs, who suffered magnificently.
In churches young Paulina liked more than anything else the torments of the Saints. “I used to go to the church to watch them suffer.”
Unfortunately for her she can never quite separate her sensual and religious sensibilities. Her earnest description of a picture of St. Catherine of Siena cannot help but include observation of her “wide hips, that soft bosom under the veil, and those shoulders. I’m not the one ever to make so beautiful a spouse”. This tendency is unfortunate because, like a good Catholic, she judges such thoughts to be evil: “but one should not think in such terms of the flesh, that’s Satan’s way”. In the next chapters one is told of her habit of exaggeration, even creation of her sins, the better to feel more anguished and attain a sweeter grace in forgiveness at confession. “She cultivated” an image of “being a sinner”. Father Bubb, the Pandolfini family’s spiritual advisor, warns, “Beware of the sin of pride”. I smiled ruefully at these scenes of innocent childish ruminations, but they are really portents of Paulina’s disastrous future.
For she falls in love with the married Count Michele Cantarini as he does with her. His wife becomes ill only a few years after their marriage and regresses into an “incurable delirium”, according to her doctors, which makes her insensible to reality. That along with her cantankerous nature leads the Count to decide to have her taken care of in a separate residence. He is not religious but he is not fond of the subterfuge and suggests that they leave for France where they can live openly together. Paulina believes that their current situation is brazen enough; she will go no further. She confesses to Father Bubbo who prohibits her from taking communion then allows her to re-enter the fold in the hopes that closer contact with God will give her the spiritual fortitude to reject her current path. The two sides to Paulina — the earthly, the religious — are at odds with another, the religious currently pacified by her belief that “God permitted my love for you”. She can believe that because her love feels instinctive, true, honest, natural, inevitable. She is fated to love him and if that is so then God will not send her to hell. If they “obey” and “have confidence in God” all will turn out right.
Two occurrences change her stance on this. The first is her father’s death. She was his only daughter and youngest child among his four offspring. Father and brothers were extremely overprotective of her, particularly after the mother’s death. In Torano, where the love affair began, she was always locked into her bedroom at night and its only entrance was through her father’s room, the other one sealed off. The youngest son, Cirillo, resents her (she has a strong personality and was a favourite) and kept her under close observation. Still, she had some for love for her father and certainly held him in high regard. That he dies before she can tell him about Michele bears down on her conscience. Her indulgent habit of exaggerating her sins rears up again. It’s worsened by the fact that, of course, his death gives her “dreadful freedom”. She is now an independently wealthy women in her early 20s with her own property, somewhat free to manage her own affairs. She discerns Cirillo suspicions about her affair with Michele (thanks to her chatty maid) but cuts him off by making veiled, pointed threats about what could happen to the Pandolfinis’ reputation if he tries to interfere. She does all that, arranges assignations with Michele at a friend’s house, and mentally cultivates her guilt.
Countess Cantarini’s death eliminates the last obstacle to their happiness. Finally, they can be together. Both initially greet the news with sorrow largely comprised of guilt. One allows the guilt to grow into a tumour that blocks her sight. The tumour morphs into a spectre of the deceased Countess and then into a demon; a demon, it’s implied, that she once thought she was fated to love. Tragically, she insists on making everything more difficult.
Oh God have I come to this that I love my awful sin?…And am I also a Pandolfini, someone who has to have her sin legitimated like some country girl? I created the challenge. It’s a matter between me and my God. I remain a sinner before THEE. Strike.
It is never explicitly shown but it’s suggested here and there that society knows of “the Paulina tragedy” and the road to marriage is not as clear as one thinks. If she had simply rejected Michele’s proposal that would have been sad enough. But this creation of a demon and its imagined possession drives her to a convent, to self-mutilation, to warped self-delusions of godly grandeur as she aspires to a level of sacrifice to make make her worthy of being Jesus’ Spouse, and much worse. It’s a brutal kind of irony that her sojourn into a life of ascetic humility and abandonment of self in obeisance before God is when she ventures very close to blasphemy and increasingly, inadvertently, reveals her resentment towards Him.
in bodily suffering and especially suffering in His image, I find the means, the unique means, of dominating my miserable being, of emptying my soul, of raising it at once and hurling it at Him.
She is to live a life of strict routine and discipline but it is in her journal entries there that her words break out of their confines and scatter across the page as poems.
Paulina and the narrator often observed that she felt as if she were two persons. During the first stages of their love affair Michele glimpsed the other side to her.
your soul, Paulina, your soul is a child, it remains a savage child and it scares me…It is a magic creature I’ve tried to capture, maybe to save you and to save myself. All in vain! It isn’t in the body I see, nor in the one who speaks to me, it doesn’t even come close to us, it dreams and is ringed with peril.
Paulina 1880 is the story of how that “savage…magic creature” destroyed them both.
In finishing the novel today I was struck by how similar it was to those by Jane Austen. You are forgiven if you thought that was the overlying idea in which my earlier Fanny Price comparison was rooted in, but that observation was limited to character analysis. It was a closer scrutiny of my response much further into the novel, after I had read more about Claude McKay and the time period in which the novel was set, that led to such a conclusion.
After dutifully becoming more informed the bits of McKay’s writing that I didn’t like before were no more likeable now, yet I remained interested in the characters’ lives, curious about who’d get married to who, or slip with into the bushes, overall pretty willing to lose myself into the fertile Banana Bottom village. I realised that my reaction was remarkably similar to what I had when reading those long, rolling 19th century British novels, and Jane Austen’s in particular because of McKay’s focus on societal issues like class, the domestic sphere, with skin colour’s importance added to the mix.
The best thing I can say about Banana Bottom is that it’s…mellow. (The Nation blurb on the front cover was accurate — the third time I’ve thought a blurb to be unerringly so.) If you’re interested in Caribbean literature but wary of being preached at it would be harder to find a more perfect read. McKay feels as strongly as Roger Mais and Andrew Salkey does about black power and equality, but McKay’s manages to present this in an idyllic mountainous farming region coupled with a romanticised peasants who gossip, fornicate and farm their breadkind (“a general name for the staple vegetables and fruits” per McKay) in a tropical paradise; a blessed country life in the tropics to which the Negroes are naturally and simply suited.
A difference in water supply and land formation had given the Jubilee district a red colour remarkably dissimilar to that of the Banana Bottom country. The Banana Bottom land with its heavy growth of thicket was a fat slate colour with bubbling springs and rivers abundant and a heavy rainfall which imparted a luxuriant green and a rich ripeness to the staples: bananas, breadfruit, pears, coffee, cocoa and sugar-cane. Although the region had been under cultivation for generations, it still preserved its pristine aspect of virgin backwoods. Anything that was cultivatable in that island could be grown in Banana Bottom.
That passage was taken from the chapter in which Bita visits Leader Lakin, a farmer who invited her to watch his pimento crop being harvested. Therefore McKay must have singing peasants, who improvise on the spot, and female hands who swing their whips to the rhythm as they carry baskets from the field. One quote looks mild on its own but when you have variations of these theme throughout the story it can get pretty damn annoying.
Three year droughts followed by a hurricane are barely blips on the radar. Just a part of country living, you know. Peasants may be pushed to the brink of starvation but there are always rich peasant farmers and missionaries with extra supplies to make sure everyone gets through all right. Again, nothing notable on its own, but when it’s a part of an overall pattern in which every conflict is defused before it’s allowed to get interesting, it begs attention. Heck, McKay deals with Bita’s rape at 12 easily enough by having the Craigs, local white missionaries, adopt her and send her off to England as part of their civilisation experiment. Crazy Bow, the rapist, is shipped off to the madhouse, inexplicably returns in the latter half of the novel to play the piano beautifully for the “natives”, later attempts to strangle the Craigs’ mentally challenged son, is sent back to the madhouse, and dies in a straitjacket weeks later. Bita? Hardly anything phases her really, not rape, arranged marriage to a snotty reverend-in-training for whom she feels no affection or desire, another attempted rape, a family death — she just goes with the flow with the exception of two cases.
One of them was something that McKay felt strongly about: class status and how it was (and still is to a lesser extent) tightly entwined with skin colour. He considers it so important that he is meticulous about differentiating between even the slightest difference in shades of black, and never mentions a colour unless he’s compared it to a comparable one in the coffee-drinking (with or without milk) and natural world (undersides of leaves, fruit and vegetable skins, you name it he compared a skin colour to it). The difference between being a darker naseberry brown and a lighter honey coloured one could decide whether a woman got a husband from the village or could aspire to a shop-keeper, or maybe even the fortunate coloured (ie of mixed race) middle-class who relished any insignificant clerical or sales assistant post that allowed them to brush against their betters.
There are exhausting differences even among the darker side of the spectrum. Education, especially one acquired abroad, was a great mobiliser so Bita, despite being…some kind of dark lush brown black (I can’t remember which fruit/vegetable skin was hers) was able to eye the position of a clergy’s wife, or even that of estate overseers and educated shop owners of the envious lighter shade. Indeed, if she chose to marry another peasant many of the villagers would have seen it as a regrettable step backward — progress meant moving to the city and, if possible, gaining some kind of civil service (for the men) or marrying into it (for the women). With subtle satire and irony McKay shows not only how a rural life is a valid existence on its own merits, but also how the Nonconformist missionaries like the Craigs, descendants of admirable “emancipation pioneers”, still saw the white way as the path to civilisation, and almost everything particular to the blacks as dark and immoral. This is more true for Priscilla Craig who emigrated from England to Jamaica, than Malcolm her husband, who was born there.
…now she was lost in a fog of doubt, wondering if all that faithful and careful building up of mission work might not some day go the same way as did the solid-seeming façade of the great plantations now abandoned to decay and crumbling in the dust before the huts and fields and the careless living and grin of the blacks….
Because the “great plantations” eventual ruin was such a horrible, horrible thing for the “blacks”…
My current idea of Jamaica and stunted historical knowledge made me sceptical of such a developed, complex, rigid class system ever existing. I recalled reading somewhere that McKay had socialist leanings, tied this in with his overuse of the word “peasant” and his permanent departure from Jamaica — at what age I wasn’t sure but it must have been when he was very young, I surmised, to support my “he’s out-of-touch” idea — and concluded that his chronic case of nostalgia had knocked him off course. As usual, I was mostly wrong. For whatever reason I associated the word “peasant” with European societies — or really, any other kind except the Caribbean. We never had peasants. Even after searching for its meaning it still felt imposed and out-of-place somehow. However, I read a few history articles and realised that it was regularly used in a Jamaican context. After all, Jamaica was largely an agrarian society for the first half of the 20th century, a fact I had not had drilled into me at school.
McKay’s own experience when he looked to make his way in the city confirmed and classism and racism.
¹His perceptions of and preoccupation with injustice and inequality, his attitude toward women, his position on color and class hierarchies, his sympathy for and identification with the black oppressed and his attempt to give voice to their plight, all these—even though they adjusted over time—issued from his Jamaican background and experience and were evident before he left the island.
Bita’s rich peasant father was modelled on McKay’s own home life in which his family’s modest wealth acted as a bulwark against the difficulties and repression that came with their darker skin. So he wasn’t daft after all.
With all that out of the way I could enjoy the Obeah, bestiality, heart attacks, clandestine romantic assignations, Pocomania (site with pictures), tea-meetings, gossip, suicide, marriages, fist fights and singing in peace. Betraying his interest in poetry, perhaps, McKay made his peasants adept at song writing, making tunes about every social incidence that occurs. I found it irritating (really McKay, how many clichés are you going to fit in here?) but the results were worth it: amusing and entertaining, they revealed McKay’s exceptional air for the folks song rhythm. As I read them I could hear the melody in my head, the voices with the drum in the background.
This ditty was made about Gracie Hall, a villager visiting from Kingston where her parents had sent her to train to become a seamstress. Such a move marked her as one of a slightly higher station, unable to partake in “common” activities for fear of disgrace. However, her life in Kingston was not as restrained as her parents thought it would be, so when a merry-go-round came to Jubilee, a bigger town near Banana Bottom, Gracie laughingly mounted on a painted horse and had a good time. On hearing about this disgraceful development her father marched down, slapped her off the horse, and prevented from destroying the harmful instrument that destroyed his daughter’s reputation.
“Oh, Breddah Hall, an’ where was you
When Gracie went a-ridin’?
Good Breddah Hall, we know is true
Dat Gracie went a-ridin’.
“Merry go-roun’ is come to town
An’ naygurs ridin’ ebery way.
Oh, Breddah Hall, you’ gal gone roun’.
Today is Gracie ridin’ day.
“Oh, Breddah Hall, doan’ be so cross
‘Cause Gracie went a-ridin’
Knock off you’ gyal but not de hoss
Dat Gracie went a-ridin’
“Merry-go-roun’ is come to town…”
¹ James, Winston. “Becoming the People’s Poet: Claude McKay’s Jamaican Years: 1889-1912.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism. 19 (2003):19.
I’m pleased to say I’ve never had such rough going with a YA fantasy novel. My unfailing good taste failed once but The Owl Service‘s formidably “elliptical” writing style — conversations are brief, emotionally fraught scenes are written with no dialogue, and important ones take place off-page — provided a kind of reading experience I just didn’t expect from a teen book.
I will not blow its subtlety out-of-proportion. The truth is that I took one look at the plot, read the first two pages, and at a glance wrapped and labelled it as a fun ol’ quest through Welsh mythology, with thrills and chills and a gripping end. I was even a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to come up with much of a post at the end of it all. It’s so short (155 pages)! It’s why I left it for so long. Usually I start a Slaves of Golconda book a month before the deadline: I gave The Owl Service only two weeks — keep in mind that this is along with my usual 2 – 3 other fiction reads and Life.
The first reading was…not great. Everything started swimmingly, then characters started getting pissy with each other, kicking rakes and books, apparently Gwyn and Ali were (trying to be) an item, Roger and his Dad were elitist buttholes, Nancy was psycho, Huw really wasn’t making any sense, there were killer paper owls on the loose, and I had no idea how to pronounce any of the proper names except Birmingham, Roger, Alison and Clive. (Do you know how distracting that is?) Plot developments seemed to leap out of hitherto non-existent corners and the ending was a big question mark. What is this book? I thought to myself as I slammed it shut. W.t.f.?
My reaction not only stemmed from displeasure but frustration. I sensed that the bewildering experience was not insignificantly my fault because I came in with a set of expectations that the book stubbornly rejected. I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have to the details, expecting that I’d still grasp a fair enough portion of the book’s offering. It was a perilous mistake because this is a book that is entirely created out of small details, superficially unassuming moments, of single sentences and lines that carry great importance not only thematically, but on the most basic level – plot. I read up on the Blodeuwedd, oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet on Wikipedia (which kinda helped), searched for a trusty guide on Welsh pronunciation (simpler than English my butt) and embarked on a quick reread against the (alleged) author’s expressed wishes. (That comment worked as a challenge rather than an admonition.)
I emerged from the darkness a second time clearer, my mind changed on most things and along with a better grasp on what I still found fault with. I find my negative criticisms on this score a bit galling — especially after having to eat humble pie and admit the book wasn’t that opaque if you just paid attention — because they pretty much boil down to this: most of the characters were not pleasant to be around. There’s Clive banging on about “barrack-room lawyers”, the children’s scornful attitude towards adults and, in Alison’s and Roger’s case, their utter lack of regard for those beneath their social class, Gwyn’s violent temper, Nancy’s crazy harridan routine — all of it. Let the valley’s power blow ‘em up and have done with the lot; the sheep are peaceful and (could possibly) go well with curry.
I’d hate to think I fall into the class of readers who can only enjoy books that contain “likeable” characters with whom they can “relate”. I know that the valley’s antagonistic power was influencing the trio’s behaviour, most obviously Alison. But much of it still felt inexplicable and lazy. Nancy is a one-dimensional psycho who hates her son (so he believes) and his father and doesn’t mind smacking the former around to have things done her way. In the one moment when she mellows enough to give Gwyn some information on the house’s former owners she comes off as a schemer rather than slightly mental. “But there isn’t the pound notes in London to pay me for losing my Mr. Bertram, just when I had landed him high and dry,” she said. Not very romantic, is it? Some may want to argue that it’s due to the supernatural consequences of her generation’s avoidance of their responsibility but I’m not one of those readers who can put everything down to the fantastical. “Oh, it’s the valley, that’s why she’s mad!” doesn’t cut it.
The women come off the worse in this book and no few understanding lines from Huw Halfbacon — to be expected, as he seems to be the only sensible person in the lot — when he and Roger talked about the Blodeuwedd myth can change that. Alison is little more than a passive conduit for nature’s desire to have things set aright, and must be saved. I could understand and was sympathetic to her conflict between pleasing Gwyn and her mother when her own self-identity was in flux — and this is more ably shown as not being all down to magic plates and pebble-dashed paintings. In her singular confrontation with Gwyn in which he again insists that she defy her mother’s wishes to meet with him she shouts,
“Stop it…Stop it, stop it! Stop tearing me between you. You and Mummy! You go on till I don’ t know who I am, what I’m doing. Of course I can see! Now. But afterwards she starts, and what she says is right, then.”
“I only want you to be yourself,” said Gwyn.
“And what’s that?” said Alison. “What you make me? I’m one person with Mummy, and another with you. I can’t argue: you twist everything I say round to what you want. Is that fair?”
That outburst gave her character and circumstances more dimensions than any other scene before or since that included her or any other character. It breathed life into her, made her seem more human over Gwyn’s overblown operatics and Roger’s flat insolence and tabloid past. Even during the first reading it stood out. Then she went back to smelling petrol and being possessed.
Her mother and Roger’s exist off-page. From various character reports the first holds the family’s best interests at ransom out of respect for her delicate sensibilities and the other caused some kind of scandal that the tabloids flogged, and about whom Roger is sensitive and very close-lipped. Unfortunately, his reserve works so well I could only muster some token sympathy and curiosity for what I imagined someone in his (vaguely) difficult situation must be going through. On the other hand, he’s quite outspoken about his disdain for the Welsh, never hesitates to verbally lash a “servant” if she doesn’t instinctively revere his precious photographs, and holds about 10 ml of respect for his father.
Then there’s Gwyn, my darling Gwyn. I liked him best of all and it is his and Roger’s privy thoughts to which readers are given the most access. He has a temper (wonder where he got it from? Couldn’t say), an anguished, feebly returned attraction for Alison and an inherited connection to a centuries old myth, the reverberations of which could be fatal. He’s ambitious, intelligent and resourceful. He’s quite proud so when he willingly bares his vulnerabilities to Alison you can’t help but melt. (Ok, I can’t help it.) He thinks his mother hates him, and he never knew his father! You just want to hug him up. (Ok, I do.)
Lest you think he’s perfect he also has a penchant for picking up a thing or two (or five) that don’t belong to him. (Garner admirably resists moralising his behaviour or going to painstaking lengths to present it in as sympathetic a light as possible — he puts it out there and you make of it what you will.) He’s insolent to everyone and anyone at any moment, young or old. As a Jamaican perhaps I find this sort of thing more shocking as I find adult-child relationships far more…casual, let’s say, that I’m used to. It’s not even deference I require here — out of sheer frustration with the Halfbacon’s seeming lack of corporation in solving the owl plate mystery Gwyn walks right up and kicks the rake out from under him; and I just couldn’t buy that one would do something so physically aggressive for that reason. (Good thing he didn’t have a taser — Halfbacon would have had a heart attack by page 60 and then where would they be?) There are little moments like this peppered throughout the book in which characters show a basic lack of disregard for each other: it gave the book a general antagonistic, unpleasant tone. (I would not reread it again.)
But, but, but — beyond characterisation I found the thematic development, the writing style and the reworking of the myth in the contemporary setting fairly excellent (despite the objections earlier comments implied). Garner is not the sort of author to lay all of his cards on the table. Plot points are revealed in indirectly, relationships are established in silent scenes, such as when Gwyn and Alison, near the beginning of the book, met each other in the hall, exchanged silent looks until she joined Clive and Roger, while Gwyn stalked into the kitchen to lower his head and grip the counter.
Garner also doesn’t bother with what he judges as unnecessary description. I’m used to a more expansive writing style where movements and setting is told in some detail. In one scene Huw told Gwyn to descend from a tree in order to look at something — in the very next line we read Gwyn’s response after looking for it. Not one is used to describe the climb. Garner only describes rooms when entered and only goes into detail if it’s helps to establish a certain mood or develop a point. Scenes that one would not have been surprised if they were included, like Gwyn writing and leaving Alison notes (or even a line or two about him thinking of it), are relayed second hand. Even the dialogue often had this abbreviated quality in which I felt gaps of information were missing even though the characters were on top of everything.
It’s an appreciable change from the sort of books where the the effect is reversed and reader is the one with close to omniscient knowledge and the characters are the ones struggling, or both reader and character are armed with comparable knowledge of the conflict. Perhaps the most singular feature that built this experience was the notable absence of the author in the novel. It’s one of the most limited third-person narratives I’ve ever read. Garner strictly keeps himself to minute descriptions of scene and action and let’s the characters move the story along. No hand-holding here. In a sense it’s a very generous kind of writing and is perfectly suited to show just how divergent reader reactions can be to the same book.
Final verdict? I appreciate The Owl Service but I don’t like it. It’s a demanding read and has the sort of flaws that cry out for engagement rather than in despair. For such a little thing it manages to contain a lot of meat to pick over and is, in that sense, not unlike *Mercé Rodoreda’s stories. Visit Slaves of Golconda for other participant’s responses.
*I’ll be doing a post on her short stories collection soon. The end of my fluffy days are in sight for those who were wondering what was up this week. ;)