November 30th, 2012 § § permalink
Mrs. Schrom wore a black halo the day before she died. Raymond saw it when she spiked her tomatoes out back and when she walked her dog. The next day her husband drove their horse trailer off the road. On Route 50 just past Gunnison. He lived because he was thrown from the truck, but Mrs. Schrom was wearing her seatbelt and she was strapped in tight. His mom told him not to draw any lessons from the accident. You should always buckle up, she said. Mrs. Schrom was the exception that proved the rule. Sister Mary Bee up the street wore a halo, too, but she was old and Raymond didn’t notice at first. You had to watch carefully if you wanted to see them. They looked a lot like shadows.
The first time he saw one he reached for it, but his fingers went right through. His mom apologized. He must like your hair, she told old Mrs. Dreisser, who died the next day. She went to sleep and didn’t wake up, and her daughter said it was a blessing. His mom had scolded him afterward. She shook her finger and said it wasn’t nice to point, and Raymond knew then she couldn’t see the things he saw. (p. 93)
Back in 2010 when I was reading through dozens of lit journals and genre magazines to highlight stories for further consideration for the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4 collection, I encountered L. Annette Binder’s “Halo” in Green Mountains Review, XXII, #2. The first two paragraphs immediately grabbed my attention, as the balance between the fantastical (the ominous black halos that seemed to foretell the bearer’s impending death) and the mundane (a young boy trying to make sense of life and death) was very good. The reasoning behind the halos is never explained, but instead of jarring the reader from a story about a boy coming to understand what death was, this narrative device served to strengthen it, to give it a more numinous quality than it might otherwise have held.
Therefore, when I learned several months ago that Binder’s debut collection, Rise, was set for an August 2012 release, I quickly placed a pre-order because I was curious to see if the other stories in the collection would be of similar quality to “Halo.” What I discovered was a wide spectrum of tales, some of which contained elements of weird fiction, that use metaphor and symbolism along with elements of realist narratives to create tales that haunt the reader long after the story is read. Very few writers, especially those with only a singular collection, manage to release such a uniformly strong collection.
Some stories, such as “Dead Languages,” strike at the hearts of parents or would-be parents who have ever worried that their child might become “lost” to them:
She hadn’t put down the grocery bags when her boy finally began to talk. She hadn’t even closed the door. He stood there sure as the pope and pointed at her with sticky fingers. Apo, her little Nicholas said. He looked at the ceiling, and his eyes were shut. Apo tou nun epi ton hapanta. It sounded like a song. It sounded like the martial arts movies Gary liked to watch. She dropped her bags at the sound. she let them fall to the kitchen tiles, and the eggs broke and seeped through the paper. (p. 73)
Here, instead of a toddler being walled away due to autism or deaf-muteness, he speaks in a mixture of Attic Greek, Etruscan, Ligurian and other languages long lost in antiquity. The heartache it causes Nicholas’ parents is real, but the deliver fashion, being so fantastical, prevents it from being just another tale of parents struggling to understand their special child. Binder’s matter-of-fact tone to something that is surreal and (at times) slightly uneasy creates a narrative dissonance that forces the reader to consider simultaneously the fantastical and the mundane, before the two merge together to create a short, sharp narrative.
The characters in Binder’s other stories are an odd lot: a giantess that is the offspring of an angel and a mortal; a mother haunted by her daughter’s death preoccupies herself with numerous plastic surgeries; a teen who sees angels; and so forth. Yet the strangeness of their situations and characters serves as a contrast to the often-quotidian settings which they inhabit: a suburban housing development or a middle class profession. Yet by the end of many of these tales, it is the seemingly “normal” that feels slightly askew, a bit out of place. It is as if Binder tilted the narrative framework 10° off-center; the reader notices something is awry, but it may take her until the story’s end for her to detect just what exactly that might be.
Binder’s prose is subtle, yet cutting to the bone when the situation merits it. Her characters often possess this fatalistic sense that things are not right or that something portentous is about occur, but this is in addition to their worries about their lives, their families, and their careers. The quest to understand happenstance lurks beneath many of these stories, such as the grieving mother in “Galatea.” What is discovered, however, may not comfort the questing characters, but it is that seeking explanations in a sometimes cruel, capricious world full of haunted memories, recriminations, and weird developments that makes Rise one of the most compelling debut story collections that I have read in recent years. Binder is a rising star (she won the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction) and Rise hopefully is the beginning of a long and fruitful career as a writer of fiction that straddles the lines between the mundane and the surreal, the realist and the weird.
November 29th, 2012 § § permalink
One never knows what engenders what: an experience a language, or a language an experience. Both are capable of generating quite a lot. When one is badly sick, one hopes, even against hope, to get cured, the illness to stop. The end of an illness thus is the end of its metaphors. A metaphor – or, to put it more broadly, language itself – is by and large open-ended, it craves continuum: an afterlife, if you will. In other words (no pun intended), metaphor is incurable. Add then to all this yourself, a carrier of this métier, or of this virus – in fact, of a couple of them, sharpening your teeth for a third – shuffling on a windy night along the Fondamenta, whose name proclaims your diagnosis regardless of the nature of your malady. (pp. 77-78)
Joseph Brodsky’s memoir/essay/prose poetry, Watermark, has haunted me ever since I first read it in July 2012. It is hard to pin down exactly what it is; its protean qualities make it a mirror of sorts for the reader: whatever might preoccupy your subconscious may come to the fore when reading this. In a draft of a July letter that I wrote to someone dear to me, I focused on the metaphor of water. This is what I wrote, with the quote above appearing in the middle:
As I said to you […], Brodsky’s Watermark was a dangerous book for me to read, as I have already re-read it once and thumbed through parts of it another. The metaphor of water, which in liquid form possesses no innate shape and whose formlessness reflects and refracts objects rather than possessing the entirety of them, for life, the city, and time has occupied several of my waking thoughts (and a few of my dreaming images) these past few days. Take, for instance, his comments on metaphors:
[quoted passage above]
I dream in metaphors, taking the concrete and bending it into something more malleable. I do not possess the talents of the great poets (and Brodsky certainly ranks as one), but I do get some sense of what maladies afflict them. Water as metaphor works because we grasp the futility of holding it; it always escapes us. Water, however, flows through us, moves us, makes our very lives possible It connects without being a part of a beginning or a terminus. It envelops the square that contains the circle in which the points of a triangle struggle to pierce it. Water perhaps is a metaphor for the Alpha and the Omega.
Yet this is only a singular impression of Watermark. Re-reading it as the leaves have mostly fallen, with ashen skies and cold breezes, there are other passages that seized my attention. The allusions to the preciousness of color in a wintry clime, of fog enveloping the streets, the labyrinths of canals and streets cloaked with this fog and the meandering paths that people take through the city – these are other elements of Watermark that complement (and provide a contrast to) the watery metaphors of other passages. As a collection of 48 short essays on Brodsky’s 17 consecutive winter visits to Venice, Watermark contains at least as much references to the symbolism of that month (and of Brodsky’s love for coolness) as it does toward anything else.
Future re-reads no doubt will highlight over aspects of Venice and Brodsky’s impressions of it. This is one of the more attractive parts to the book, as Venice, like people, is constantly shifting. In some guises, it appears active, bursting with activity, as might a radiant child playing in front of approving parents. Yet there are times where the stillness of the city captures something else:
And you sense this light’s fatigue as it rests in Zaccaria’s marble shells for another hour or so, while the earth is turning its other cheek to the luminary. This is the winter light at its purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus. Its particles’ only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or small, visible. It’s a private light, the light of Giorgione or Bellini, not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto. And the city lingers in it, savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private. (pp. 80-81)
Privacy certainly is another layer to Brodsky’s text. In his impressions of the city, ranging from the city as metaphor to the city as symbol, Brodsky’s imagery feels intimately personal, as he struggles to convey what he feels each time that he perceives a countenance of Venice’s many faces. We are but interlopers here, Peeping Toms who witness his attempts to wrestle with the infinitude of symbol and metaphor to craft something approximating a “true view” of his beloved Venice. As I said in the excerpted personal letter, “It envelops the square that contains the circle in which the points of a triangle struggle to pierce it.” Yet these approximations, close as they come to realizing infinity, by nature must fail. And in that “failure” of Brodsky to define Venice, we detect that eponymous watermark that signals that this work is one of the most evocative works of the late twentieth century, one in which re-readings will yield different impressions each time his essays are considered.
November 29th, 2012 § § permalink
Struggling Against Something Impossible: Journey to the End of the Night
The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.
And maybe it’s treacherous old age coming on, threatening the worst. Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside of him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.
Fifty years after his death, Louis-Ferdinand Céline remains a controversial figure, on one hand, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, on the other, a vicious anti-Semitic and convicted Nazi collaborator. Even earlier this year, when his name was removed from a list of nationals to be celebrated by the French state due to complaints at his selection, his detractors had to admit that he was a brilliant writer. His debut novel, Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932 and nominated for the Prix Goncourt, is a semi-autobiographical tale starring his reoccurring stand in, Ferdinand Bardamu. Céline’s style is at once apparent, favouring hyperbole, vulgarity and heavy ellipsis, often veering off on an angry soliloquy about whatever it is that has offended him at the time.
Céline’s hatred would be easy to write off as the ranting of a madman, were it not so pointed and accurate. It is very hard to shake off the feeling that Céline’s Ferdinand is right, because it is hatred tempered by experience. All the things that the novel shows us, Céline has seen first hand. Like Bardamu, he had fought and been wounded in the First World War, spent some time working in the colonies, visited the Ford factory in Detroit, and doctored to the poor in Paris. His misanthropy is all-inclusive though, he has equal contempt for his military superiors and the French upper class as he does for the poor, who often refuse to pay him and abuse him for the privilege. The only people spared of his rage are children, because there is still a small chance that they won’t turn out as crummy as the rest of us. The optimism of his youth is destroyed in turn by the futility of war, the savagery of the colonies, and the abject pettiness of human nature.
Ferdinand’s relationships with women are problematic; he treats them poorly and they treat him badly in return. None of the women are faithful either; Lucy and Musyne cuckold Ferdinand for the advancement of their dreams, Molly as a necessity of her job as a prostitute, and Sophie for his own health. Not that Ferdinand ever seems to care. The women come and go, and Lucy is the only one to reappear later, when Ferdinand is down and out in New York and tracks her down to bully her into giving him money. She has achieved her dream of leaving France for a new life in America, but she looks old and anxious, and is obsessed with adopting a daughter to focus all her love on. A warning that getting what you want doesn’t solve your problems. Ferdinand should know, in Detroit with Molly, it seems he actually has a chance of happiness, but he has to leave her to chance the phantoms that drive him from place to place. In his memory he turns her into another phantom, if he could find her again, perhaps it could be happy, but it is easy to love phantoms on account of the distance, “very little presence, that’s the whole trick, especially in love.”
The real flaws of human nature (as in Death on Credit, also about Ferdinand’s dealings as a doctor in Paris) are most apparent when Ferdinand sets up shop as a doctor in the fictional Parisian slum of La Garrene-Rancy. As a doctor serving mostly the poor, he is often willing to let payment slide (admittedly, he helps people more out of his own curiosity than any sort of kindness), which earns him a great deal of scorn, both for the obligation they owe him in doing so, and the notion that a person would have to pay for any respectable doctor. The people that he helps not only insult him behind his back, but also use him as a last resort for when other doctors are not available, or they can’t afford to pay. As a doctor, he is also made privy to the terrible things that people do. On more than one occasion, he goes to the homes of families who allow women to bleed to death from a miscarriage or complications from an abortion, rather than face the shame that would occur should they be admitted to a hospital. Another of the slum’s denizens, the Henrouilles, attempt to pay him to have old Madame Henrouille committed so they will no longer have to support her financially, and later enlist his help when an attempt to murder her is botched. In dealing with the sick, Ferdinand sees all the aspects of our nature we try so hard to hide, the lust, the greed, malice, and stupidity.
The only other constant throughout the novel is the character, Léon Robinson, who seems to appear wherever Ferdinand goes, from the war, to the jungles, Detroit, and later again in Paris. Robinson is dangerous because he believes the world owes him something, and even when he has something he is never happy and wants more. When the Henrouilles need someone to get rid of Madame Henrouille, he takes the job, only to end up blinding himself in the process. Later in the novel, when his sight has returned, he has a good income, and is engaged to Madelon, the woman who cared for him when he was blind, he still feels compelled to murder Madame Henrouille for her share of the business and abandon Madelon. In his great outburst at the climax of the novel, he tells the unhinged Madelon that he is disgusted by existence, that he can no longer believe that love can make everything any less putrid, “you want me to eat rotten meat?” he says, “with love sauce”? After his slow and agonizing death of infection caused by two close range shots to the gut courtesy of the jealous Madelon and her hidden revolver, Ferdinand laments that he hasn’t one great idea to die for like his friend. Robinson’s death, like every other event in the novel, drags him closer to the end of the night.
We are all heading to the end of the night; it is only a matter of time before we reach our destination. People will betray you and leave you, and if, by some small miracle, they don’t, they’ll die on you anyway. Your youth will desert you, leaving you old and infirm, and then you’ll really be in the shit. When it is all that remains, you’ll love your misery, cradle it close like some phantom lover, convince yourself it is more special than all the other misery that surrounds you. Like Ferdinand says, “that’s what we look for all our lives, the worst possible grief, to make us truly ourselves before we die.” In the end, as somnambulists sleepwalking through our lives with nothing but misery and our regrets, we are ultimately an “old lamppost with memories on a street that hardly anyone passes anymore”. That is the pathetic truth of existence; you either face up to it or lie to yourself like everybody else. As Céline tells us, you have to choose. I’ve never been able to kill myself either.
Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dream on November 4th, 2011.
November 29th, 2012 § § permalink
Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long – a lot of things happened, after all – but perhaps you’re not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck you’ll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: you’ll see that this concerns you. Don’t think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years I’ve made up my mind to write, it’s to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae – what do we do with such an appalling realization? (p. 3)
Over 60 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the Shoah/Endlösung/Holocaust (each of those words bearing its own indelible image) remains an extremely controversial topic. From those like David Irving who have tried to downplay (if not deny outright) the horrors of the situation to those like Daniel Goldhagen, who in his 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, sought to spread even further the blame for the atrocities against the Jews to those who note that the very real sufferings of the millions of other ethnic groups, such as the Gypsies, need to be brought to the spotlight, how one chooses to discuss the events of 1933-1945 can easily will determine who will condemn and who will praise that intrepid soul. It is little surprise, therefore, that American/French writer Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones has drawn fierce criticism and received lavish praise from writers and critics in both France and the United States over the past three years.
The Kindly Ones is a fictional first-person narrative of the Alsatian factory owner (and former Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD) officer) Dr. Maximilien Aue, as he writes a quasi-confessional memoir from the vantage point of at least 30 years after the war. Over the course of this nearly 1000 page narrative, Littell’s Aue rambles, digresses, retrenches, emphasizing before decentering his actions during World War II on the Russian front. There might be a dozen pages or more devoted to his relationships with both men and women, followed by a paragraph or two that seemingly glosses over the death and suffering of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs.
For many readers, Littell’s prose will be unsettling. Aue, by nature of his office as a SD officer in the Nazi SS, will leave many readers uncomfortable just by knowing that they are reading about some of the 20th century’s worst deeds from the point of view of one of the perpetrators. Others will find details of Aue’s personal life, from his bisexuality to the gradual uncovering of the specifics behind the one “loving” relationship in his life (and I put “loving” in quotes, because the nature of that relationship is very debatable, to say the least) to be disturbing. I myself could understand why others would be at unease reading about these events from Aue’s perspective, but I found myself drawn further and further into the narrative due to how Littell chose to tell this story.
I have taught lessons on the Holocaust for over 10 years now, from the middle school level to assisting a professor with a graduate seminar on Hitler’s Germany. One of the more difficult questions raised in these lessons by students is that of “Why did so many people want to participate in these horrible deeds?” It is a daunting question for historians to explain, because the answers can be even worse than the question itself. While I am favorable to the Functionalist interpretation of the Endlösung, there is something appealing about the Intentionalist argument that the Shoah resulted from conscious decisions of the upper echelons of the Nazi government. After all, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners would not have become the NY Times bestseller that it did in 1996 if it weren’t for millions of readers worldwide who had at least some sympathy for his extreme Intentionalist argument that there already was a inclination in Germany towards favoring a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” before the National Socialists came to power in 1933.
Littell’s book treads carefully around this argument. It is quite clear that not only has Littell done quite a bit of research into this time period, but that with his treatment of the 1941 massacres and Aue’s passing comment about how so few are dedicated Party members on the front, Littell’s novel could be seen as a Functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust. Aue is not a gung-ho partisan who wants to butcher the neighboring Jews (that task is left to the Ukranians, who are more than willing to do the task for the Einsatzgruppen), but instead a cynical, world-weary cosmopolitan who has come to view these actions as being little more than unfortunate necessities.
In fact, these “unfortunate necessities” haunt the second half of the book. As Aue narrates the events (sometimes becoming too passive of an observer, leading to relatively lifeless chunks of prose in the middle portions of the novel), it is what isn’t said that becomes as important as what is said. Littell has Aue raise the question of guilt, only to let it drop purposely, while the 1941 massacres begat the more systematic death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, Chelmno, and Belzec. In a weird, perverse way, his raising and then dropping of the issue of guilt mirrors that of other, more recent atrocities, such as those of Rwanda, Darfur, and Srebrenica (some of which places Littell has visited as a worker for an international NGO). It is as if Aue, speaking from a fictional past, while describing an even more distant actual past, hints at the very real denials and downplaying of atrocities that is so current today across the globe.
As an account of the Holocaust and how “ordinary” people can get caught up in such actions, Littell’s novel is provocative and for the most part, rings true. As a narrative, there are several weak points, starting with Aue’s inconsistency as a character. By this, I am referring more to how “strong” he is in relation to the events he narrates, as often I felt as though Aue “disappeared” for dozens of pages at a time. Also, I have to question the effectiveness of having Aue be a closeted bisexual, as well as how his relationships with family members were depicted. I believe that Littell loses some of the power of his novel by having Aue take on characteristics that make it easier to view him as a pervert or a monster than it would have been if he had been an “everyman” character whose actions during the course of the novel would have forced readers to confront more directly the idea that they too could easily have been caught up in the hatred and the killing of former friends and neighbors.
While the mythic Kindly Ones do not make an appearance at all until the final page, The Kindly Ones does give hints of the tortures that Aue faces as a result of his sometimes-passive participation in the Final Solution. It is a shame, however, that it took so long for Littell to build to that point. Yet despite the rambling, digressive narrative, despite the inconsistencies of Aue’s character, despite the difficulty in accepting the premise behind Aue, The Kindly Ones is a powerful work. Messy, disturbing, and more than a little graphic in places with its scatological and sexual references, Littell’s novel deserves praise for its attempts to tackle an event that is still an explosive minefield for anyone trying to unravel its mysteries. It is a mess, but it is a glorious, necessary mess and for that alone readers ought to read it. Just don’t be surprised if virulent reactions follow.
November 28th, 2012 § § permalink
Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart. The sun departs the sky in winding sheets of gaudy cloud; anguish enters the city, a sense of bitterest regret, a nostalgia for things we never knew, anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. In America, they call it “the Fall”, bringing to mind the Fall of Man, as if the fatal drama of the primal fruit-theft must recur again and again, with cyclic regularity, at the same time of every year that schoolboys set out to rob orchards, invoking, in the most everyday image, any child, every child, who, offered the choice between virtue and knowledge, will always choose knowledge, always the hard way. Although she does not know the meaning of the word, ‘regret’, the woman sighs, without any precise reason.
Soft twists of mist invade the alleys, rise up from the slow river like exhalations of an exhausted spirit, seep in through the cracks in the window frames so that the contours of their high lonely apartment waver and melt. On these evening, you see everything as though your eyes are going to lapse to tears.
Carter’s third collection, published in 1985 as Black Venus in the UK and Saints and Strangers in the states, features mostly stories about women throughout history, such as Lizzy Borden, Edgar Allen Poe’s mother, the actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe and the title character, Jeanne Duval. While the collection continues to theme of Carter’s work in defining male tales through the eyes of the other sex, only three of the stories in the collection contain the more fantastic elements of her previous collection, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, as she chooses instead to focus on typically male perceptions of history, redefining the roles of the women in those situations. Duval is transformed from kept woman and sexual object of Baudelaire to a superior sexual being who holds the naïve poet in thrall and outlives him becoming wiser. Lizzy Borden’s crime becomes not a horrific act of violence but a form of emancipation from a cruel and oppressive situation. In doing so, Carter creates another strong collection of stories focused on destroying male myths about femininity.
The opening story, Black Venus, is Carter’s take on the muse and mistress of Charles Baudelaire, Jeanne Duval, whom he called his “Vénus Noire”, the inspiration for the Black Venus Cycle poems inLes Fleurs du Mal. What she represents to Baudelaire she also represents to men through the glass of history, mysterious because she is Creole and sexual because she was a dancer and the object of desire of someone as perverse as the “evil poet”. We are told of how he becomes aroused one night after abducting her from the place where she dances, having seen her urinate in the street without any indication or sense of shame. The subtle suggestion she is a fallen woman as implied in the quote above is reinforced by the last sighting of Nadar that sees her syphilitic, toothless and on crutches. Through Carter she is transformed, her sexuality becomes an empowerment as she charges Baudelaire for sex because she respects him and because she is worth it. She is also shown to be the more intelligent of the two; although she appreciates his art, as she recognizes the stupidity in his comparing her dance to a snake, as if he had seen one like she had, he would know how ridiculous the comparison is. Baudelaire himself is shown to be all talk and somewhat as a poseur, as he weeps in her arms post coitus. At the end of the tale she outlives the poet who dies of syphilis and is able to put her own life together in outliving him, returning to the Caribbean and living to become a wise old woman, having “snatched herself from the lion’s mouth”. Carter’s Duval is not a sexual object for male perversion but a strong, independent and empowered sexual being.
The second story, The Kiss, is the shortest story in the collection and is about an incident between Tamerlane and his beautiful and clever wife. With her husband on his way home to Samurkand from another victorious campaign, the wife wants the Mosque she has had built in his honour to be finished for his return, but one archway still remains unfinished. She summons the builder, but he will only complete it in return for the payment of a kiss. The wife does not want to be unfaithful and so being clever she devises a plan in order to trick him by giving him eggs of different colour to eat. When he has eaten them and is unimpressed because they were all the same, she uses that against him by saying that the same logical applies to kisses regardless of aesthetics therefore she will allow him to kiss any one of her handmaidens instead. His counterproposal includes three bowls of clear liquid, two containing water and one vodka, with the argument that although they look alike, each tastes different and this is the case with love. After this she kisses him and when Tamburlaine returns home she will not return to the harem because she has tasted vodka, telling him that she has kissed the architect. She is beaten and he sends his guards to execute the architect who is at the archway having completed it, but when they arrive he grows wings and flies away. The vodka serves as a catalyst to awaken the wife to her subservient role and once it has occurred she can never go back to the way it was. It is implied at the end of the story that she flees the palace to be a normal woman who would visit the market, and perhaps sometimes sell lilies, becoming the old woman who seems to live unaffected by time, mentioned earlier in the story.
Our Lady of the Massacre tells the story of a Lancashire lass who moves to London, where she has to steal a loaf of bread to avoid starving and is caught by a gentleman who coaxes her to go to a bedroom with him where they have sex. Afterwards when he realises she was a virgin, he is ashamed and gives her some money and as a result she starts to prostitute herself on Cheapside in order to get by. In addition to whoring, she also begins to steal out of excitement and is caught lifting a gold watch from a city aldermen which leads to her being transported to the New World. There she is sent to work on a plantation but has to run away after she cuts the ears off of one of the foremen who attempts to rape her. She attempts to travel to Florida where she intends to make a living from whoring again, but along the way realises that she is able to survive by herself living off the land. While out in the wild she encounters a Native American woman who takes her in as a daughter and she becomes part of the tribe. There she lives a simple life, happy because she has no wants or needs and is part of a community. She even gets married to one of the tribesmen and has a baby boy. Her happiness does not last though, as soon the English come and the men of the tribe will not heed her warning, as she is a woman. Believing as they are proud warriors they will be a match for the English army. Caught the morning after a victory, hung over and unable to defend themselves, the Native Americans are all slaughtered by the English and the protagonist sees her husband shot dead, and her surrogate mother raped and murdered. She is taken away by the English to be taken back to town and branded, but on the way a priest buys her freedom so he can save hers and the baby’s soul. At the end it is revealed that she is to be married off to one of the townsmen and the baby is to be taken and raised in the church, but she states that she will never allow this to happen. In England the protagonist sells herself because that is the only way she is able to survive and steals out of the lack of anything meaningful in her life. This is reversed when she goes to live with the supposedly less civilized Native Americans because she is given a place in the community and respected as a woman. She is a strong woman throughout and even after the tragedy that occurs to her she remains that way, refusing to let another take her son away from her, no matter what it takes.
The next story is one of my personal favourite Carter stories, The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe, dealing with the effect that Poe’s childhood and his mother had on his psychological problems later in life. His mother, Eliza Poe, was an actress, praised for her ability and versatility in play roles ranging from Shakespeare’s tragic heroines Ophelia and Juliet Capulet to choral, dancing and comedy roles. In Carter’s story Edgar as a child watches every night in the wings, sometimes wandering onto the stage and kept quiet when he cried with a dab of alcohol (a suggested precursor to his own heavy alcoholism). The thing he enjoys most is seeing her in her cabinet mirror, watching her change completely from one person to another in front of it. After his mother is abandoned by their father, she continues to try and raise them until her own death from consumption two years afterwards. As described by Carter:
The moist, sullen, Southern winter signed her quietus. She put on Ophelia’s madwoman’s nightgown for her farewell.
When she summoned him, the spectral horseman came. Edgar looked out the window and saw him. The soundless hooves of black-plumed horses struck sparks from the stones in the road outside. “Father!” said Edgar; he though their father must have reconstituted himself at this last extremity in order to transport them all to a better place but, when he looked more closely, by the light of a gibbous moon, he saw the sockets of the coachman’s eyes were full of worms.
The death of his mother has a profound effect on Poe as he has seen his mother die countless times before on the stage and get back up after the curtain fails, but this time she does not return. Three weeks after her death he is taken in by the Allen’s and given a good home and education, he grows up to marry his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. The pair were married for eleven years until her death of tuberculosis. Through the story, Carter shows the way in which Poe was shaped by the tragic death of the two women he loved and we know that the effect was the constant theme of dying or dead women in his work, such as Ligeia and The Oblong Box.
For the next two tales, Carter returns to the familiar area of folk lore for a reimagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream in which she introduces a golden hermaphrodite, andPeter and the Wolf, returning again to the theme of feral children. In Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer’s Night Dream Carter imagines a very English sort of wood as the setting in which she places into the story a golden hermaphrodite called Herm who is under the care of Titania, who is determined to protect her from the amorous advances of her husband Oberon. While the forest begins to change to match Oberon’s sexual frustration, Titania uses the Herm for herself, cuckolding her husband. In addition to this, the Herm is also lusted after by Puck who follows her into the forest where she practices yoga, but is unable to molest her because of a barrier created to protect the Herm from harm and as a result, can only watch and masturbate. Puck even manages to make himself into a hermaphrodite with the position of his genitals reversed, but his plan still does not come to fruition. The interesting thing about the story (despite the language being lush even by Carter’s standards) is the symbolism that she uses in each of the characters. Titania is a fertility goddess while her husband the King is frustrated male dominance and Puck is pure uninhibited animal sexuality. The golden Herm, while possessing both sets of genitals and being desired by men and women alike seems to find the whole idea of sex boring, as if more enlightened through a higher state as shown by his/her yoga. In adapting the tale Carter retains the bawdiness of Shakespeare’s play while making it uniquely her own story.
In Peter and the Wolf, when he comes of age to go hunting in the mountains, Peter discovers a young girl amongst the wolves. She is his cousin who has become feral as her parents were killed by wolves in the mountain when she was just a baby. Calling the other hunters, they track her and take her home, where she is wild and continues to be a handful, although Peter and his grandmother are committed to try to help her. She begins to howl loudly though and before long the wolves have come down from the mountain and start scratching on the door in order to reclaim her, breaking into the house and freeing her. The girl is so animalistic that she even scares the grandmother who knows that it is her dead daughters’ child and wants to love it. After this event, Peter becomes religious, taking a great interest in the bible and religious studies with the village Priest and when he comes of age is recommended to go and study at the seminary. Leaving the village, he comes to the village and he sees his cousin on the other side with two wolf cubs who nurse on her (perhaps for comfort, or maybe even the dark symbolism of bestiality). Seeing her there, he is reminded of his desire for her which was enflamed when he first was drawn to her sex when she was naked in the house. He runs across the river to her, forsaking everything, but he just scares her off. Like Puck in the previous story, the feral girl represents animal sexuality, but she also represents a kind of freedom that Peter also desires but cannot have. Continuing on his way, Peter notices that the mountains of his youth have become to him like those on a postcard and does not look back for fear of sharing the same fate as Lot’s wife.
The next story, The Kitchen Child, tells the story of a young boy born from a chance encounter between his mother and a mystery man in the kitchen of a country house in which she works. Being raised in the kitchen, the boy learns from a young age a number of culinary skills and his mother continues to cook impressive dishes. She is constantly being vexed by her antagonist the head housekeeper and feels underappreciated as when the master of the house visits he never asks for her speciality, the lobster soufflé. One year when the Duke visits, the boy approaches him to try and find out about his father and learns that he has sadly passed away, but also that the housekeeper has been purposely not passing on the message, leading his mother to believe wrongly that he was not interested in the lobster soufflé. As an act of kindness he goes down to the kitchen in order to give the boy’s mother a seeing-to, but she rejects him, as when she was molested on the previous occasion it caused her to accidently add too much cayenne to the dish. The Duke is moved by the mother’s dedication to her job and brings her back with her son to be the head chef at his residence, the boy becoming the Duke’s stepson and the youngest French chef in England. In the mother we see a woman who is strong and independent, able to raise her child while having a career and being dedicated to her art.
The final story in the collection is The Fall River Axe Murderers which tells the story of Lizzy Borden, who in folklore famously murdered both her father and stepmother with an axe, although in reality, doubt still remains as to whether or not she did it, as she was acquitted at trial. Carter’s Lizzy lives in an oppressive house where due to a recent break-in, all the doors remain locked at all times, including her bedroom when she is asleep. Her father is quite wealthy but he is a miser, so even the shape of the house is oppressive, very narrow, and Carter uses this to create an atmosphere that is in a sense claustrophobic. Her stepmother is presented as being rather gluttonous, she does not really do anything in the story except eat and eat and the relationship between her and Lizzy is not a good one as they do not get along. Lizzy’s sister has gone away to stay with friends in another town, but Lizzy feels compelled to stay in Massachusetts for reasons that are at that time unknown to her. As the heat becomes unbearable, making everyone in the house ill, an event occurs that triggers Lizzy’s crime. While her father is a miser (to the point that when he was in the undertaking business he cut off feet to fit people into caskets he had gotten on the cheap) he dotes on his daughter and buys her whatever she wants, including the pet doves that she craved. One day though he grows sick and tired of the doves and kills them, almost allowing his wife to eat them in a pie before he is stopped by the servant girl who likes Lizzy and knows that would add cruelness to an already bad situation. Lizzy’s crime becomes almost an act of radical freedom in which she resorts to violence in order to emancipate herself a cruel and oppressive situation. In retelling the story in this way, Carter changes Borden from a person seen as a “crazy woman” by a male perspective of history to a woman who refused to be a victim.
Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of Its Mortal Dream on July 1st, 2010.
November 27th, 2012 § § permalink
He could remember a time in his early childhood when a large number of things were still known by his family name. There was a Zhivago factory, a Zhivago bank, Zhivago buildings, a Zhivago necktie pin, even a Zhivago cake which was a kind of baba au rhum, and at one time if you said “Zhivago” to your sleigh driver in Moscow, it was as if you had said: “Take me to Timbuctoo!” and he carried you off to a fairy-tale kingdom. You would find yourself transported to a vast, quiet park. Crows settled on the heavy branches of firs, scattering the hoarfrost; their cawing echoed and re-echoed like crackling wood. Pure-bred dogs came running across the road out of the clearing from the recently constructed house. Father on, lights appeared in the gathering dusk.
And then suddenly all that was gone. They were poor. (p. 5)
Revolutions are nasty, capricious matters. A political revolution in particular tends to be brutal, toppling buildings, regimes, and the heads of several of its opponents. A social revolution is even more cataclysmic, as whole world-views are altered and conceptions of order are either suspended or abolished completely. The failed 1905 Russian Revolution and the more successful October/Bolshevik Revolution of 1917-1923 combined the two revolutionary types described above. It is in many ways the culmination of events that had been brewing in Russia ever since the days of Peter the Great and his dreams of westernizing Russia. Russia before the revolutions was a very top-down society. Serfdom had been abolished less than two generations before the 1905 Revolution, but the masses still had relatively little power compared to their Western counterparts. But between 1905 and 1923, one of the most drastic socio-economic (not to mention political) upheavals took place. Like the fictional Zhivago family, the formerly rich and powerful became paupers and the working classes, or rather the the soviets who claimed to represent the proletariat, rose to prominence.
When Boris Pasternak, himself a scion of a well-to-do Russian-Jewish family born in 1890 (he also had some strong ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, as is apparent in this novel), began writing Doctor Zhivago in the 1950s, the Russia of his youth had been almost completely transformed. Gone were the czar and his court. The capital had been moved back to Moscow from St. Petersburg. The great industrialists (represented in part with Zhivago’s father, who died in the opening scene of the novel from a suicide involving a train) had had their properties confiscated; the State controlled almost everything. But what was the Revolution?
This question seems to have haunted Pasternak the remainder of his post-1917 life. Unlike other Russian writers and philosophers, such as Nabokov, Pasternak did not flee Russia when the Bolsheviks gained complete control in 1923. He lived through the Stalinist purges of the 1930s (indeed, Stalin himself is reported to have removed Pasternak’s name from an arrest list, thus beginning an uneasy coexistence between Pasternak and the authorities that lasted until 1958), although he wrote little until the war years and its aftermath. Some, like Nabokov, accused him of being a lapdog to the Bolsheviks, a coward who was afraid to voice his opposition to a tyrannical regime. This was quite ironic, considering that Doctor Zhivago created a more visceral reaction from the post-Stalinist communist regime than did anything that Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov, or Alexandr Soltzhenitsyn ever managed to do with their works.
For those familiar with the movie, this story has been billed as a love story. While indeed Yuri Zhivago’s passionate and often star-crossed interactions with Lara/Larissa Feodorovna Guishar does indeed drive much of the internal tension of the novel, the book is far more complex than its cinematic adaptations over the years have revealed. If anything, the true “love” expressed in this novel is Zhivago (the name itself being derived from the Russian word for “life”) and his complicated, sometimes cynical love for his Russia and for the Revolution.
The novel takes place over the course of Zhivago’s life, roughly paralleling the events that Pasternak experienced. Although one has to be careful extrapolating from a novel, it appears likely that Pasternak did take some elements of his life, especially in his scenes involving the Jewish friend of Zhivago’s, Gordon, and tweak them to create some of the more powerful points of the novel. It is certainly the case that the Soviet authorities were outraged when the manuscript had been smuggled out of the country in 1956 and published without their consent. But what about it could have inflamed them?
Pasternak does not take an accusatory stance. He does not berate the Soviet authorities openly in this novel and rarely is there even a hint of such sentiments. Instead, what this novel shows, especially toward its latter parts, is just how violent and transformative the Revolution truly was. From scenes involving Zhivago encountering the sailors of the St. Petersburg soviet to detailing his experiences between caught in the crossfire of the Bolshevik Reds and the anti-Bolshevik (and not necessarily conservative, although certainly several such groups were) White, Pasternak describes a Russian society caught up in a fervor that leads to arguments of kind (how far should the Revolution go?) as well as those of type (were the Bolsheviks bad for the Russian people?). One scene three-fourths into the novel, involving Zhivago’s love interest, Lara/Larissa, underscores the confusion that the Revolution has caused:
“Ah, that’s hard to answer. I’ll try to tell you. But it’s strange that I, an ordinary woman, should explain to you, who are so wise, what is happening to human life general and to life in Russia and why families get broken up, including yours and mine. Ah, it isn’t a matter of individuals, of being alike or different in temperament, of loving or not loving! All customs and traditions, all our way of life, everything to do with home and order, has crumbled into dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society. The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the naked human soul stripped to the last shred, for which nothing has changed because it was always cold and shivering and reaching out to its nearest neighbor, as cold and lonely as itself. You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first two people on earth who at the beginning of the world had nothing to cover themselves with – and now at the end of it we are just as naked and homeless. And you and I are the last remembrance of all that immeasurable greatness which has been created in the world in all the thousands of years between them and us, and it is in memory of all those vanished marvels that we live and love and weep and cling to one another.” (pp. 402-403)
This passage also reveals another thematic element, that of connecting Russia’s religious past with the unfolding Revolution. Pasternak makes several allusions throughout the novel to the endtimes, first having Zhivago viewing the Revolution through the lens of an earthly paradise being achieved and then later through scenes such as this, where the Revolution is more of a maelstrom that has sucked its victims into its maw, devouring them. Pasternak here notes that in this calamitous time, all that is left is but “the naked human soul stripped to the last shred.” Yuri Zhivago and Lara, in addition to the whole host of other characters introduced over the course of this novel, are eventually presented as being creatures trying to make headway into an extremely stiff wind. All around them, the world is collapsing, being destroyed, or (to some) being transformed into something perilous and perhaps even enchanting. It is this complex brew of emotions, juxtaposed with characters who have been ravaged by the Revolution, which makes Doctor Zhivago such a haunting novel.
As a novel, Doctor Zhivago succeeds on several counts. The tension between Zhivago and Lara/Larissa provides only one of several layers of narrative tension that help drive the story forward. Pasternak’s prose, at least as read in English translation, appears smooth and the layers of detail rarely threaten to overwhelm the reader, despite how unfamiliar some readers may be with Russian patronymic conventions. There are so many layers to this story that this short essay does not attempt to cover them all. For those wondering about the changing social climate between the proletariat and the former capitalist leaders, this is covered, but ultimately is not a major part of the novel, despite several evocative scenes. The Jewish question is hinted at, with conclusions that are left more to the reader to decipher than for anything to be spelled out explicitly. Even the most central character after Yuri, the Revolution itself, has unspoken, unstated elements for the reader to consider long after the final page has been read. Perhaps the greatest clues to all these are to be found in the poems that form a coda to the novel. Those serve as guides to several of the issues that Pasternak raises in the novel, but like the novel itself, interpretations are left for the reader to provide, not the author.
Were there any major flaws? Not really. While it took about a hundred pages for this reader to gain a feel for Pasternak’s rhythms, after that stage, things unfolded in a smooth, measured pace that felt oddly controlled, considering the chaotic element being treated. Doctor Zhivago certain deserves the praise that it’s received over the past 50+ years and despite the Revolution having run its course, the story still contains a powerful punch for those reading it.
November 26th, 2012 § § permalink
The Part About the Critics
According to his heirs, Roberto Bolaño left instructions that his final work, 2666, should be published as five separate novels, each corresponding to one of the sections of the book as it appears today. If that was genuinely his intention, he certainly did not give the five sections titles that might stand as the titles of novels.
Sceptical as I might be about this plan, it nevertheless seems reasonable to read this massive work in easy stages. I intend, therefore, to read each part of the book as though it stood upon its own, and to write about it as I do so. Furthermore, I will not start reading part two until I have finished writing about part one.
And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600.
The Savage Detectives
The novel tells of a group of young people drawn together by a shared interest in literature, though a literature slightly at odds with the cultural norm. Their friendships are intense. Sexual relationships start up and fail, occasionally violence flares. Then the core group set out for the town of Santa Teresa in the Sonora desert close to the US border, on a quest to find a mysterious writer from an older generation who has come to occupy a touchstone role in their own self images.
It is curious that a writer so digressive as Bolaño, a writer who makes free with so many other stories from so many other sources (The Savage Detectives recounts, in detail and over several pages, a short story by Theodore Sturgeon), should adhere so closely to the same structure in his two most substantial works. Clearly the emptiness of Sonora, the desert where everything is open and minimal, has some symbolic significance for Bolaño. Where everything else is devoid of detail, it is here that the details of the story can come clear.
More than that, however, it feels as though The Savage Detectives and 2666 are not just variations on a theme, they are the same theme, they are the same novel. As if Bolaño believed the solution to something both literary and spiritual lay in Santa Teresa, and the two novels were both attempts to find out what it might be. I thought he had found it at the end of The Savage Detectives; whether Bolaño thought he had found it by the end of 2666 I have, of course, yet to discover.
I am not suggesting that 2666 is a rewrite of The Savage Detectives, but it occupies the same territory, and that this most fecund of writers seemed to find himself forced to return to the same narrow barrenness is far from being the least interesting thing about this pair of novels.
In many ways the two books are polar opposites, perhaps too artfully different for this to be entirely coincidental. Lima and Belano, the two ‘visceral realist’ poets at the heart of The Savage Detectives, are Latin American (one Mexican, one Chilean), bohemian in manner, iconoclastic in their response to Latin American literature yet still uncomfortably aware that they are situated at something of a tangent to world literature. They are, in a sense, outsiders, outlaw poets, living hand-to-mouth yet ready to sacrifice most things to the service of their art. On the other hand, Jean-Claude Pelletier is French, Manuel Espinoza is Spanish, Piero Morini is Italian, and Liz Norton is English, and their chosen focus, Benno von Archimboldi, is a German novelist; they are thus intimately involved in the cross-currents of European culture. They are all establishment figures, all are academics with growing reputations and good careers whose lives are financially comfortable and who seem to spend the majority of their time attending academic conferences in expensive hotels in most of the major cities of Europe. There is nothing outsider about these four. And while Lima and Belano are on a quest to discover an all-but-forgotten member of the previous generation of visceral realist poets; Pelletier, Espinoza, Morini and Norton have, through their work, turned the little-known and reclusive novelist Archimboldi into a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize.
And yet they occupy the same ecological niche. They are young, very widely read, passionate about literature, argumentative, and indulge themselves incontinently in both sex and drink. There is one scene in which Pelletier and Espinoza beat up a taxi driver in London, an outburst of unreasoning violence that doesn’t quite fit with how we have come to see the pair up to this point, though it does seem to fit with the semi-underworld environs of Mexico City through which Lima and Belano move. Yet there is always this sense of danger hovering around Bolaño; one of the peripheral figures in ‘The Part About the Critics’ is a painter who cuts off his hand and uses the severed hand as the centrepiece of his masterpiece. Violence accompanies art, madness and commitment are the same thing. A view of things that puts Lima and Belano closer to the truth, as Bolaño might see it, than the easy, slightly effete lifestyle of Pelletier, Espinoza, Morini and Norton. Which is, perhaps, why Pelletier, Espinoza and Norton have to be wrenched out of their comfort zone and sent into the Mexican desert, following up a reported sighting of the invisible Archimboldi; because the desert strips away civilisation, and exposes the rawness underneath. (Morini, who is confined to a wheelchair, takes no part in this expedition; but then, he has always been slightly detached from the other three, a knowing, slightly cynical chorus.)
As we start the novel, these four are attractive characters. How could they not be? We are introduced to them through their individual discoveries of the work of Archimboldi, their determination to make his novels better known, more critically accepted; they are bookish people in love with books, just as we readers are likely to see ourselves. But gradually they begin to lose our sympathy, we see them doing down academic rivals, leading factions at conferences. Pelletier and Espinoza both enter into a sexual relationship with Norton. There are petty jealousies and rivalries, friendships are forgotten and then awkwardly re-established. They are far from being antiheroes, but them they are far from being heroic either. Then comes the attack upon the taxi driver, which shocks them because of the rawness of the emotion it reveals.
But when three of them decide, on an impulse they but dimly understand, to go to Mexico, the veneer of civilisation is still in place. At first in Mexico City, then, later, in Santa Teresa, they find that veneer being insistently peeled back. They are first bored then mystified by Mexico, and when they reach the desert they are rendered almost autistic. They are slightly contemptuous of the local academic, Amalfitano, who serves as their guide in Santa Teresa. They see him (he sees himself) as inferior to a European academic, washed up into a backwater. He is almost laughable (he keeps a book pegged out on a washing line), yet there is a sadness and a mystery to the man that the Europeans cannot penetrate. (I have a feeling that Amalfitano might fit into a similar niche to Amadeo Salvatierra in The Savage Detectives, the mescal-addicted former poet who first puts our heroes on the trail of Cesárea Tinajero; though I am unlikely to be able to confirm that sense until I get to the second part of the novel, ‘The Part About Amalfitano’.) It is the failure to penetrate Amalfitano, the failure even to recognise that there might be something to penetrate, that is the key to the failure of the Europeans. With Archimbaldi remaining resolutely out of reach, they find themselves lost under the pitiless glare of the desert; what served to hold them together, to give them meaning and purpose in Europe, no longer pertains. Before long, Norton has left them, going back to Morini. Espinoza finds himself mooning after a girl who sells rugs in the market; while Pelletier, who opens the novel discovering Archimboldi, closes this part sitting in a hotel endlessly, emptily reading and re-reading the same three Archimboldi novels.
Nothing has happened, and everything has happened. We hear rumours that women in Santa Teresa are being killed, but we see none of this. It is a hint of the wildness of the place, but at this stage it might as well be in the imagination of the European visitors, the shock of coming to this savage place from Europe. Yet, though they are so clearly unsuited to the desert, neither Pelletier nor Espinoza are able to leave, they make plans but do not put them into practice. This part of the novel ends in inertia.
November 25th, 2012 § § permalink
The patient lies beached across her specially reinforced catafalque of a bed, and as he sponges around her pudenda she groans a’herrra! and grinds her teeth while her bare feet patter on his shoulders – several flies settle close to her very bits, but none of this matters. She’s mine now, my Twiggy…grown Redwood. A bed sore in the region of her hip dressed, that dressing sheathed in underwear chivvied from reluctant staff, Busner fetches his tripod and Bolex camera. He is operating intuitively – there is no clear idea. In Willesden and before, he used photography to present objective images to the deluded with which to counter their disordered ones. To the same end he employed a tape recorder after injecting them with sodium pentothal. Sometimes he guided them on LSD trips – all of it, as he now admits, had only variable results. This is different, however: Leticia Gross is wholly inert, holed up deep inside her voluminous fat, and moving images of her colossal inanition seem entirely beside the point. ANd yet…And yet… he has a hunch. As with Audrey Dearth, he senses singing within her a crazy polyphony of exaggerated tics, a pickingitupandpickingitupandpickingitup, a hairflickinghairflickinghairflicking, a scratching and a reaching, and a perseverating. He sets up the camera and she fills the viewfinder: a Matterhorn, her eyes arêtes, her cheeks ice flows. The light is drab, yet he presses the button and waits…and waits… (p. 127-128)
Modernist prose has long fascinated me precisely because it is not something one just picks up and reads with quick and near-total comprehension. Sometimes, a reader should have to work harder at deciphering a text, plowing through its layers of intertextual symbolism and “crosstalk” to get closer to the substance of the passages. Our world is not a singular narrative that flows lineally from point A to B; it pauses, interrupts itself, interjects a multitude of viewpoints. Perspectives shift or transform in front our eyes and meaning, like time and space, seem to occur all at once and not at all. Confusing? Perhaps at first. Worth the effort? Depends upon the skill of the writer to convey a sense of fractured time through narrative forms such as stream of consciousness that capture this sense of multiplicity in a succinct fashion.
Will Self’s Umbrella was by a fair margin the most challenging narrative of the six 2012 Man Booker Prize finalists. Self consciously tries to capture the best of the Modernist techniques in a combination of three stories and four PoVs that span the length of the long Modernist/Postmodernist ages (roughly 1918-2010 for the novel). It is a tale of movement among those who appear to be for virtually all extent and purposes the sleeping dead. It is also a whole host of other things, all wrapped up in a multi-perspective stream of consciousness narrative that works on several levels.
Umbrella (the novel’s name is explained in the epigraph, being a quote from James Joyce) concretes on two past/present narrators: Audrey Dearth/Death (among other surname variations) was a victim of the 1918 encephalitis lethargica epidemic that left her condemned to a sort of waking death until a curious experiment conducted by Dr. Zack Busner involving LSD seems to reawaken parts of her mind. Much of the narrative flow consists of pre-1918 Audrey’s conceptualizations of the world, including her support for feminist and socialist causes being transformed through this 1971 LSD-induced reawakening into something that feels like a fissured reconstitution of this important period in 20th century British social history. Mixed in with Audrey’s past/present recollections are Busner’s own thoughts and reminisces, both as the experimental doctor in 1971 and as the retired one in 2010 who is reflecting back on what was a mysterious series of events that occurred during that fateful summer. Self intertwines their thoughts, past/present during these three periods (1918, 1971. 2010) in such a seamless fashion that it takes some effort from the reader to discern which Audrey is speaking and which Dr. Busner is conversing with his past/future/present self.
This narrative technique can be rather hokey if the author does not tailor the story to fit within the constraints of stream of consciousness. For the most part, with very few slip-ups, Self eloquently captures the tenor and feel of three separate periods through stray thoughts and symbolic representations (including the transformation of WWI-era munitions into something quite different in Audrey’s thoughts). The name play (a fat woman with the surname of Gross, not to mention Audrey’s various surname spellings?) is well-done, with the occasional onomatopoeia, such as that in the quoted passage being a nod to Joyce and his use of such to play with the narrative tone.
Yet a narrative can be as “daring,” as “experimental” as possible and lack a “soul” to it. This, however, is not the case in Umbrella. Amongst the memories of old items for sale and pre-mass media marches and demonstrations lurks another narrative, that of the terrible 20th century and its dissolution of older traditions in order to create mass entities that mimic some of the past’s cultural heritage while suborning it all to machine-like mass production. Self’s commentary on the century is not direct, but it can be pieced together through a careful look at what Audrey and Dr. Busner recall and how they react to it. Through their eyes and through their real/symbolic states, much more is said on the century that was, on its great social movements and its blunderings toward horrific violence, than if Self had told their stories through a more conventional narrative form.
Umbrella was my second-favorite out of the six 2012 Man Booker Prize finalists. I thought that Self succeeded in achieving most, if not all, of his literary goals, with the result being a complex narrative that yields only some of its fruit upon a first reading. Re-reading passages prior to writing this review sparked memories of other times, other events that I had read prior to this novel and that too perhaps is part of the novel’s goal of narrating and reshaping a turbulent past. Umbrella may not be “accessible” (those who tend to use this word to describe novels frequently espouse a trite, Hallmark Card-style approach toward storytelling that sucks the narrative marrow dry), but it certainly is an impressive achievement and worthy of further consideration in the years to come.
November 25th, 2012 § § permalink
Why have a daughter only to be told of her death two hundred and seventeen miles above the surface of Earth? Why have a wife at all if the end result is a house without furniture? Why become an astronaut only to end standing in a cul-de-sac in the darkness?
A black ocean above him. Stars cut into that false firmament. And Keith Corcoran standing there, drunk, maybe even smiling, the ring of the cul-de-sac and the lit orbit of streetlamps circling him, and when he stumbled forward toward the dark edge of the sidewalk he did so without conscious thought, only with a drunken sense of curiosity or perhaps not even that. Perhaps instead only the drift, the alternating sense of heavy stumble and high floating that drew him back and forth across the concrete. He nearly lost his balance stepping over the chain that blocked the empty lot from the sidewalk but did not fall, moving forward into the shadows, his feet crunching the thistle and stumbling some on the uneven ground. “Shit,” he said as he regained his footing, his voice a hollow in the slow flat darkness of the field. (p. 102 e-book, near the end of Ch. 6)
There is something about space that we can never comprehend. Miles? Sure, we can grasp the time/distance involved there because of stops along the way. There are limits, no matter how huge they may seem at the time, to the longest roads and the biggest nations. But space? After a while, it becomes numbers and models and relative scale (light years and astronomical units in place of miles, kilometers, meters, or feet); it enthralls us and yet denies any scrying into its depths. Space, particularly that beyond the earth’s outer atmosphere, seems to be a great big empty that never can be filled, no matter how hard we try. Infinity can only be approached, never reached.
In reading Christian Kiefer’s debut novel, The Infinite Tides, this sense of a cold, distant space kept creeping into my thoughts. Some of this is due to the story revolving around a decorated astronaut, Keith Corcoran, who seems to be more at home in the mathematical figures and approximations of astronomical physics than when he is “grounded” on Earth, in Houston or Georgia, where his wife moves to after she divorces him. The distance of space finds its parallel in the distance in the relationships that Corcoran has with his wife (seen both in flashbacks and in the literary present) and his daughter, over whom he and his wife fought to define and control before her tragic death in a car accident. At times, this metaphor is realized eloquently, but sometimes it is strained to the breaking point, leaving a novel that can feel just as cold, distant, and unknowable as infinite space.
The Infinite Tides depends heavily upon Corcoran’s character. Kiefer takes a major risk here in having a character that seems to have profound difficulties in understanding other people be his protagonist. Corcoran comes across as self-driven to the point of self-harm, pushing himself further and further in order to return to space, all at the expense of his relationships with his family and friends. At times, he engages in self-recriminations, but there is the sense that this is just a temporary measure before he drifts back toward his first love, that of infinite space. This type of character can make for dull passages, as they themselves seem to be only going through the perfunctory motions of eating, sleeping, working, and having sex, all while being detached from mundane quotidian concerns.
Kiefer’s prose fits Corcoran’s character almost perfectly. Consider the passage quoted above. Corcoran has just learned of his daughter’s death and his wife’s filing for divorce. Yet his deepest fear seems to be being trapped in the cul-de-sac, into bourgeois standards of what constitutes a “good life.” The prose here strives for the profound in an attempt to capture the fleeing sense of the infinite in Corcoran’s thoughts, but quickly it crashes into the colder reality of his situation. Corcoran is no hero; he stumbles about, blindly searching for a substitute (including an empty affair) before he finds something to latch on when he gets to know an Ukrainian couple. Yet even there the yearning does not seem to cease. Instead, it transforms itself into something even more metaphorically distant and yet somehow paradoxically closer than before.
How one receives these final scenes will depend upon the reader’s patience level. Kiefer does take his time building to the final revelations (or perhaps final stages to a different perspective would be more fitting?) and at times the narrative does seem to stall, drifting through the various requisite stages of mid-life crisis before discovering itself again. Yet there are enough moments of insight into Corcoran’s character and his love for space that The Infinite Tides may be an enjoyable, rewarding read for those who do like narratives that are a bit more “distant” than in most literary fictions. For myself, it was a read that was beautiful at times, yet surrounded by passages that felt too perfunctory in its treatment of Corcoran’s family/career issues for it to be anything more than a flawed yet promising first novel.
November 23rd, 2012 § § permalink
There is something awe-inspiring when cultures (or, as earlier historians used to say, civilizations) clash. Although one might conjure images of a martial field where cultural combatants duel it out to see whose language, whose religion, whose legal customs, whose views on what constitutes a family, and whose social customs will prevail, there are few true “winners” and “losers” in these clashes; elements of each side are absorbed by the other. Yes, some cultural elements will come to dominate and whole elements of prior ways of lives will disappear for those who do not gain hegemonic control of a particular religion, but there are always subversive currents that underlay a conquest. Lip service may be given to a particular ideal (say, a religion or language), but underneath it, tensions may boil within elements of a conquered society, riving friends, neighbors, and even family members as each tries to cope with the changing politico-cultural climes.
Tariq Ali is a British-Pakastani historian and novelist whose works, fiction and non-fiction alike, over the past forty years or so have dealt with these effects of cultural clashes. Ali in particular has taken an interest in exploring elements of the history of Islam over the course of five novels, starting with the 1992 novel Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. Much of the international news over the past two decades has been devoted to covering the rise of jihadism in certain sectors of Muslim societies, but not as much has been focused on exploring how the clash of Western cultural values with those of traditional Muslim societies has fueled this torrent of uncertainty, fear, hope, frustration, and hatred. In reading Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, I was reminded of just how confusing these cultural clashes and their consequences can be for societies, especially on the family level.
The setting for Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is the region around Granada around a decade or so after its fall to the Spanish conquistadors. Granada, the last bastion of Al-Andalus in Spain, had preserved the rich cosmopolitan culture of the Cordoba caliphs. But during the decade following the surrender to the Spanish, the Moors of Granada learned that the Spanish were not keen on keeping their promises of preserving Granada’s culture and religious freedoms. Led by Cardinal Ximénes de Cisneros, Queen Isabella’s adviser, the Spanish government quickly overturned the provisions of the 1492 treaty with the Granadan Moors. The public use of Arabic was banned and the children of the Moors were to be educated by Catholics. This enforced Christianization led to a century of half-conversions, family members converting in truth in order to advance in society, subtle rebellion against the new customs, disparaging satires of both the conquerors and the vanquished, and so forth. In this novel, Ali creates a fictional history of the Banu Hudayl family in order to show the devastating effects of the Reconquista’s final stages on the remaining Spanish Moors.
Ali utilizes short, to the point descriptions and dialogue to set the stage. He begins his tale in the year 1500, just as Ximénez is beginning the controversial forced conversions of the Moors (later referred to as Moriscos). Through the eyes of young Yazid, Ali shows how difficult life became for the Moors and how some, including his uncle Miguel, had chosen to collaborate with the Spanish and become Christians in order to advance while kinsmen were being forced to give up their trades, their language, and (publicly) their religion. Below is one key passage that illustrates the plight of Yazid’s family:
This family, which for centuries had not thought about anything more demanding than the pleasures of the hunt, the quality of the marinade used by the cooks on the roast lamb being grilled that day, or the new silks which had arrived in Gharnata [Granada] from China, was tonight confronting history.
Miguel had dominated the evening. At first he had sounded bitter and cynical. The success of the Catholic Church, its practical superiority, he had argued, lay in the fact that it did not even attempt to sweeten the bitter taste of its medicine. It did not bother to deceive; it was not searching for popularity; it did not disguise its shape in order to please its followers. It was disgustingly frank. It shook Man by the shoulders, and shouted in his ear:
‘You were born in excrement and you will live in it, but we might forgive you for being so foul, so vile, so repulsive if you sink to your knees and pray every day for forgiveness. Your pitiful, pathetic existence must be borne with exemplary humility. Life is and will remain a torment. All you can do is to save your soul, and if you do that and keep your discontent well hidden, you might be redeemed. That and that alone will make your life on earth a mite less filthy than it was on the day you were born. Only the damned seek happiness in this world.’ (pp. 124-125)
This cited passage contains the heart of Ali’s narrative. Even the apparent lickspittle uncle Miguel notes the brutality involved with the Christian conquest of Granada. Ali focuses on the controlling aspect of religion here, just as he notes elsewhere the effects that hegemonic power has on the society’s (and family’s) public and private life. Enforced acculturation is a messy, sordid affair and in this novel, Ali uses the fictional structure of telling the family history of the Banu Hudayl to explore the deleterious effects of the cultural clash between the Christian Spanish and the Muslim Moors.
Ali’s novel is best read as a historical narrative covered with a thin veneer of fiction. As characters, Yazid, his sister Hind, as well as the above-mentioned uncle Miguel are more akin to representations of what did transpire for hundreds of thousands of Moriscos during the 16th century than as fully-realized characters. There is a stark contrast between Moors and the Christians here. The Spanish are never seen as being anything more than brutal, uncultured louts who have by force of arms and law have seized control and are making the Moriscos suffer for the effrontery of having conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula eight centuries before. While Ali does a good job illustrating the cracks in Moorish society brought out by the Spanish conquest, his dialectical approach to the situation was a bit too heavy-handed in places. At times, the novel stopped reading as such and began to resemble more some of the Marxist interpretations of cultural history that I have had to study in the past. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach (in fact, on several occasions, this made the story more interesting to me), it does bear noting that in places the novel suffers as a result of Ali’s polemics.
On the whole, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree was a quick (240 pages), decent read that felt more like reading a history of the times than it did being a historical novel. However, the story never really rose being above a thinly-fictional account of the times. The characters existed more to illustrate Ali’s interpretations of the early 16th century Moorish-Spanish cultural clashes than anything else; I often was not engaged with the characters at all. The polemical nature of Ali’s work was a bit overwhelming at times, even though I was on the whole sympathetic with most of his arguments presented within the text. I do not regret reading the novel and I think it provides a fascinating look at the historical period which it covers, but the fictional story itself was a bit too thin for me to recommend it wholeheartedly.