Paolo Giordano, rising star of the Italian literary scene, who has recently published his debut novel, La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi, to thunderous acclaim, winning the 2008 Premio Strega, answers a few readers’ questions on the World Literature Forum (where I can also be found). Here is the link to the thread where questions, even of a frivolous and private nature (“Paolo, why are you so pretty?”) can be asked and where they will be answered by Giordano during the next few weeks. You need to register first, but it’s worth it, anyway. The reason why Transworld Publishers staged this event is because they will publish the English translation of the book (The Solitude of Prime Numbers) during the coming month. I’m currently reading the book and will post a review next week when I’m finished. It isn’t the first event of its kind at the WLF. Upon the publication of Niccolo Ammaniti’s The Crossroads, its publisher, Cannongate Press, already had its author answer a few questions here.
Archive for May, 2009
Ruth Padel, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, made history at Oxford when she became the first woman to be elected to the position of Professor of Poetry since the job was created in 1708.
But Padel’s election was marred by Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott’s decision to withdraw as a candidate from the election after anonymous letters attacking him were sent to Oxford academics.
British newspapers reported that the letters made reference to an allegation of sexual harassment made against the St. Lucia-born poet by a former student in the 1980s.
The papers said the letters included references from the book ”The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus,” by Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, which carries allegations against Walcott made by a Harvard freshman in 1981. At the time of his resignation, Walcott said he had never commented on the claims and would not do so now. But he called the anonymous letter campaign an attempt at character assassination.
Padel came under increasing pressure after The Sunday Times quoted e-mails it said she had sent to two unidentified journalists drawing their attention to the book. In a statement announcing her resignation, Padel acknowledged sending the e-mails. But she said she did not engage in a smear campaign, explaining that she had only passed on information already in the public domain.
”I acted in complete good faith, and would have been happy to lose to Derek, but I can see that people might interpret my actions otherwise,” she said in the statement.
Oh, they might?
Lessing, Doris (2009), Alfred & Emily, Harper Perennial
Before I embark on another one of my reviews, let me say this: Alfred & Emily is a thoroughly good and original book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. Doris Lessing has never been a prose stylist sparkling with brilliance, turning out, at times, pages and pages of clunky prose. But in everything I’ve read of her, that part of her writing turns out to matter little. Despite her style, Doris Lessing is a great writer, with astonishing instincts. That is true for her books, but it’s evident even if you just look at her career. As she was on her way to full mainstream acceptance, she suddenly started to write Science Fiction. To make this kind of change takes guts and a very independent mind, two qualities that her work evinces as well. Alfred & Emily (2008) is Lessing’s first book after winning the Nobel prize and it represents another turn in her career, considering that the two books before that were novels set in a SF/Fantasy setting, if I remember correctly. This one, now, is about her parents (the eponymous Alfred and Emily) and, to a large extent, about Lessing herself. Au fond, it’s two books rolled into one, but cleanly separated, into a fictional part and a skewed sort of memoir.
Now, as mentioned, Alfred & Emily consists of two parts. Part one is called “Alfred and Emily: A Novella”. In it, Lessing imagines how her parents could have turned out if they had made other decisions in their lives, and, most importantly, WWI had not happened. In the introduction to the book, Lessing explains that her parents were profoundly unhappy, because “World War I did them both in”. In her re-imagined reality her parents do not marry each other; instead Alfred marries a woman that is kinder, more loving than Emily, qualities that the real Alfred had to do without. Emily marries the great love of her life, a doctor in the Royal Free Hospital where Emily worked as a nurse. The real Emily had to cope with the death of that doctor who “drowned in the channel” and married Alfred, who came, wounded in the Great War, into her hospital. He had lost a leg, and spent the rest of his life making the best of this and his case of what Lessing assumes to have been post-traumatic stress. Additionally, he quickly found himself with a loveless wife and a hardscrabble existence as a farmer in Rhodesia. That last thing, Lessing keeps. Since her father “wanted to be a farmer all his life”, she makes a farmer of him in her novella.
There is not, however, much that we learn about the imagined Alfred, due to the fact that, even though its title suggests something else, the book is more about Emily than about her hubby; the rationale for this imbalance is explained near the end of the book, in the second part:
Even as a child I knew his obsessive talking about the trenches was a way of ridding himself of the horrors. […] But my mother also needed a listener, and to her needs I tried to be oblivious.
Only later did Lessing recognize the validity of her mother’s tale, her mother’s complaints, her mother’s voice. This book, especially the first part, is in many ways a paean to her mother. In imagining her mother’s possible career in a world without the First World War, Lessing takes a couple of puzzling and striking decisions. The first one is the marriage she has Emily embark upon. Since the war took Emily’s great love away from her, Lessing offers her the hand of that doctor, “Dr. Martin-White from Cardiology”. From this premise, a reader would expect an account of a fulfilling marriage to follow, to have the outline of the happiness presented that real life stole from Emily. The usual tosh. Instead, we soon learn that Emily’s new husband expects, and practically forces her to leave her job as a nurse (because it wouldn’t be “proper”) and from that point on everything is caught in a downward spiral. What ensues are separate beds, general emotional cold, until finally, out of despair and boredom, Emily becomes a society lady, giving lush tea parties. It is not until her husband dies that Emily finally breaks free.
As Emily tries to find something to do, she uses her husband’s considerable funds to start a school for poor kids, that, in the course of the book, expands into a hugely successful series of schools with dozens of subsidiaries all around the United Kingdom. Additionally, she expands public libraries to include books both for kids and adults and, at the end of the first part, she starts a series of refuges for ‘disgraced’ women when she runs into trouble upon trying to have an unmarried yet pregnant girl stay at school. So, Lessing suggests, the only thing that stopped her mother from becoming one of the great social leaders of her time was the Great War and marrying the oaf Alfred. This is what I consider the second puzzling decision. Although Lessing’s book contains both an explanatory introduction and a short chapter called “Explanation”, this is a huge leap, that, in its magnitude, is completely unexplained and should be taken with more than a grain of salt. I assume that this suggestion, this change of hers is rhetorical more than anything; my assumption is supported by the fact that the Emily portrayed in the second part, the real Emily, is snobbish, vaguely racist, and aloof. She outs her daughter as a communist to her employer, because she considers her a danger to “public order”. This is not the Emily we have met in the first part. What happened?
Let me approach it from this way: Lessing is as much concerned with the social environment of her characters as with interior motivation. The fact that the imagined Emily marries upwards of her class, is disappointed by the elites, and, in due course, shocked by the way that poor people are educated does not have any counterpart in the biography of the real Emily, who is taken out of her environment and dropped into alien territory. Thus, the real Emily has no way of understanding how her class works within the references of British society. Instead, she is now, thrust into Persia first and then Rhodesia, almost completely bereft of references, and she’s called upon to created new connections. Even the imagined Emily, in the midst of London, has to be shown the “dreadful poverty” there, because she “had not been conscious of much poverty” and “servants were the closest she had come to London poverty”. She has to see, smell, experience poor people’s despair in order to understand it. Small wonder, then, that the real Emily never had the intellectual growth necessary for this understanding. Yet, however intriguing that aspect is, the imagined Emily’s encounters and altercations with class do not stop there.
Since WWI and WWII never happened, the British society has never experienced the turmoil that would lead to a gradual abandonment of old and traditional class distinctions (at this point, I should point out that much of this would be vastly more illuminating and interesting to a UK native, since references and allusions will largely be lost on me; additionally, my knowledge of recent British history is shaky at best), and so strict ‘Victorian’ morals are still thriving and powerful, which, with time, proves exasperating for Emily:
How very much they had enjoyed themselves, Emily recognized, those representatives of public charity, saying, ‘It was wrong. It is wrong.’
At that point of the novella, Emily has grown so much that she’s maddened by these onslaughts of moralizing by the rich heads of the charity funded by Emily herself. The real Emily, as depicted in part two, would have applauded the judgmental bishops and rich debutantes, society ladies with nothing to do, who provide a large part of the work and organization in the schools. The juxtaposition of the two Emilies clarifies to what extent our personality, things that we may consider incremental to our selves, depend upon just the right circumstances, and, finally, Emily’s meteoric rise as a social leader of sorts is more than just a statement about Emily’s potential. The whole book could be said to examine the potentials of groups that used to spend their time on the peripheries of power. There are also countless remarks and discussions of the dynamics of speech, sound and listening. The imagined Emily is far more than the re-imagining of a real person. It’s the re-imagining of whole world.
But, and this is why the book works so wonderfully well, Lessing never descends into caricature, into cheap hints and jabs. As smart and aware readers, we are all like the children in the novella, who complain about a storyteller, who cannot “prevent his voice deriding” his tales. The children protest: “Not like this. Read it properly.” In a way, this is my reaction more often than not when I am reading a very ‘clever’ and postmodern book that interrogates things. It’s often both boring and tedious. Lessing circumvents this by ‘reading it properly’, by writing a story that makes sense as a story, that explains its ideas on an immediate level as well as on a more abstract one. It’s always enjoyable to read, though; at times it’s bursting with brilliance, like the scene where she has her protagonist try on a dress for a dance (music and dancing plays an important role in the book, on multiple levels), and that dress doesn’t fit, but she still wears it. That scene is far more subtle than I make it sound, going on as it does over several pages, encapsulating both abstract ideas and direct experience.
The second section, which could be seen as a memoir, should be called “The Quest for Emily T.” because it’s an extended attempt to understand Lessing’s mother. In that sense, it’s quite autonomous. I maintain, however, that its main function is to provide a balance and a contrast to the first part, as my reading has demonstrated. Thus, the novella would constitute the main part of the book, which is interesting. Why is it called a novella, anyway? The most well known definition of the genre was established by the other Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who postulated that a novella is built around one extraordinary incident. Since this novella extends over several years and does not contain such an incident, one might look for the reason elsewhere. I would suggest, however, that the incident or even in this case is the lack of an incident or event. The Great War, the war to end all wars, it never happens, and the “shadow of the trenches”, as Lessing calls it, never falls upon the family. The desire to have a war, that was very loud in the years before WWI, Lessing brands it as problematic, the search for an event to define an epoch. Instead, the imagined epoch is defined by the quests of women like Emily, and not the fights of warriors like Alfred.
This book is complex, containing much more than I had time and space to go into, crammed with continuous explorations of themes like the value of reading and telling stories, like music, old-school Marxist issues, like labor. In the second part, we are told that “[w]hen it was agreed that there was a problem we shared, it was natural for us to approach it from literature.” Alfred & Emily is an attempt to make sense of a personal problem: of the trauma of WWI that shaped not just Alfred and Emily’s life, but Lessing’s as well. Her difficult relationship to her mother, the pre-eminence of her father for her work, her attempts to take refuge in books, making sense of her role and place in the world, they are all influenced by WWI, as the book makes abundantly clear. Yet, strangely, the fantasy is an attempt to erase herself, or rather, to lose herself in that picture of her mother. The whole book is an elaborate play of hide and seek, with Lessing looking out at us, and hiding again. For her last sentence, she breathes into her heart, retreats once more: “She was, they all said, a very good bridgeplayer”. Yet, however much she hides, Lessing’s beautiful mind shines in every phrase here, every sentence.
Marcom, Micheline Aharonian (2008), The Mirror in the Well, Dalkey Archive.
A few months ago, I reviewed a slim little book on this blog, Menis Koumandareas’ Koula. It’s an austerely told tale of a middle-aged woman’s attempt to break free from the corset of her society by engaging in an affair with a younger man. The affair is doomed, and Koula returns into the rank and file of her society. The telling of the story somewhat reflects this, in that it is highly traditional, dry, almost prim. Another tale about “unhusbandly cock” (quote from the book) is told in Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel The Mirror in the Well, which is somewhat longer than Koula, in terms of pages, but is also vastly more expansive in the way it treats its subject. It’s both simple and highly complex, it’s both a delightful, ecstatic postmodern fun-house and a tiresome “clever feminist novel”. One thing is clear: Marcom is a good, no, a very good writer. With that burden of ideas, a lesser writer would have collapsed midway, or produced a thoroughly dull exercise in dutiful thinking. The Mirror in the Well stays the course and even, towards the end, ups the ante, as the novel launches into a crescendo of voices and ideas that, in the final chapter, quietly implodes. Is it a good book? I don’t know.
As I look through the book now, I notice that it depends on my mood whether the good or the bad elements dominate my impression. See, the novel could be right up my alley. I love passionate, exciting books that are also clever and full of ideas. On these counts, the novel delivers. It tells us the story of a married woman’s sexual awakening, in a way that impressed me immensely. In contrast to the solution many writers choose, of letting the social expressions of the affair, like changed behavior, or inward expressions, like longing, desire (in a rather abstract way), jealousy etc. tell the story. In those books, the invariably erratic behavior of the cheating housewife points to her mixed up inner life, and various metaphors, hints, and even one or two chaste depictions of the sexual act are all that we are provided with when it comes to deeper descriptions or examinations of the woman’s motivations, of what it is exactly that ‘sexual awakening’ signifies. Make no mistake, I am not panning these books, there are many of them that are well worth reading or even masterpieces. I was, however, glad to see Marcom take a different tactic.
From the second page, we are not just talking about “a blurred picture of Eros”, we receive detailed descriptions of the sexual act and of the importance of that act. What we see is a woman’s first experience of cunnilingus, as she gets “her cunt licked and sucked”. The importance of having the man lie in front of her, prostrate, eating her, because “she doesn’t want to fuck”, but that act is far from an ersatz fuck; on the contrary, her lover’s mouth upon “her nether mouth” enables her to enjoy herself, opens up new vistas for her. It liberates her, or rather: it opens up a path to liberation for her. As she sways to and fro between her lover(s) and her husband, between different kinds of love, the fact that her lover will perform cunnilingus on her, and her husband will not, is an important and, in the end, decisive difference. On the contrary, as we learn in an aside, when they still had sex, she had to suck him off and have anal sex with him. Marital sex, we’re told, was all about him and not about her at all. Her lover, however, displays a great capacity for serving her needs, putting her wants and desires before, presumably, his.
All of this is not hid between flowerbeds of description and metaphor; although Marcom’s landscapes and other exteriors are highly sexualized, her depictions of the sexual act are descriptive, plain, detailed and highly explicit. We do not just read that he eats her, we are also told, in detail, how. Metaphors, when they are used at all, do not serve to illustrate the act, but to add other elements to the explicit descriptions already in place, such as is the case when the woman, dangling her cunt in front of his face, imagines her labia hanging down, “slapping” his face like the “hull of a ship”.
There are two things this image evokes, in the context of the novel. One, her shame as far as her own body is concerned. At that point, she has come a long way, from being “ashamed of her desires, her stink” to enjoying the “scent of her cunt” later in the book, so much, indeed, that, at one point, she rubs it under her nose for it to keep her company in the daytime. But her unease with the flesh never goes away. To Marcom’s credit, too, her lovers are never beautiful fashion magazine models, into which many writers are wont to turn objects of desire in their books. Instead, Marcom almost revels in the folds of the flesh, in the fat of bellies, in smelly breath, in piss and cum. For her female protagonist, it’s less a question of reveling than a constant struggle. Her acceptance of others’ flesh is, as with most of us, tied to her acceptance of her own flesh, this, however, is subject to constant changes. Whenever she feels guilty, when society digs its claws deeper in her psyche, she develops a revulsion for bodies, she even dries up, so that, at times, she ends up with a “desiccate and moral cunt”.
The other thing that the ship imagery evokes, is myth, in this case especially the tales surrounding and including the Odyssey and especially the complex relationships between wives and the returning husbands therein, the two most pertinent examples probably being Agamemnon and Odysseus. Myth can be hampering in books like this: feminist novels tend to contain a horribly tedious, well-meaning but ultimately hokey web of mythical stories that emphasize the Feminine, which, in terribly essentialist manner is taken to mean the creative principle, as opposed to the destructive, male principle, etc. etc. etc.. We all know the drill. This book, too, is a spendthrift where spiritual or mythical references are concerned, we even get a creation story which, for me, is the low point of the book. There’s just no way to employ these myths gainfully, or at least in a way that doesn’t suck completely (if there is, I haven’t yet encountered it). And, in The Mirror in the Well, it’s all over the place. The least obtrusive but ubiquitous way that it surfaces is in the way that, from a certain point on, the woman starts to refer to herself and her lover: as Gods. Although this, too, is somewhat hokey, it’s also the only reason why the myth-making doesn’t completely ruin the book:
See, at the end of the day, the novel is, in the (by now) traditional postmodern manner, about telling stories. From the first, the reader is on his toes, as far as narrative techniques are concerned, because of the way that references and address swivels around. For 4/5ths of the novel, the lover is referred to as “you”, except in phrases that have the woman as subject, where he turns into a “he” or “the lover”. The woman, too, has changing names. Sometimes she’s “the woman”, sometimes “the girl”. As these descriptions change towards the end of the book, we learn that it has to do with self-possession and control, which, by what feels like a very cheap meta-fictional ‘conceit’ (very chichi), is revealed at the end to include narrative control, which is all I’m prepared to divulge at this point. Yes, this strenuous cleverness is another weakness of the book, but the two weaknesses, myth and meta-fiction, provide support for each other, because they illuminate aspects that would not be clear otherwise. On the one hand, myth is not just a story that we tell ourselves, in the case of the woman, the power relations inherent in religious tradition are put to good use to illustrate the importance of cunnilingus in this novel, by showing, explicitly, how the telling of this story and its content are intertwined, which then lends a heightened significance to the meta-fictional devices.
In closing, I want to remark, however briefly, upon the writing. Marcom uses an extremely simple style, in the sense that I had the impression that she used a strongly limited vocabulary, evading any synonyms to words previously used. Thus, words resurface so often that they create a kind of music, really. This effect is amplified by the idiosyncratic punctuation, which does not primarily follow rules of grammar, but rather breathing patterns. Like a good poet, Marcom controls the speed with which the reader reads certain paragraphs or phrases. The resulting musical pattern is so close to ecclesiastic music, that I was not surprised to see poems from the Sufi tradition quoted in the book and quotes from, among others, the great Martin Buber, precede the novel. In connection with the celebration of her cunt and the spirituality, this can appear tacky to some readers. I enjoyed it, because it provides the novel with an almost manic energy.
Sure, this novel is not for everyone, but it’s certainly worth reading, if you can stomach the tackiness. Marcom fills her short novel with so much: class, race (I have remarked upon neither, but they are wildly important, too) and gender; her approach to sexuality is remarkable in that it’s neither prude nor cheaply pornographic, and her energy can be riveting. Sometimes, though, I can see myself hating the novel, because its faults do carry a certain weight, in my eyes. Yet, whatever the (de)merits of the book Marcom is clearly an excellent writer. Her reluctance to resort to easy solutions is praise- and noteworthy. That, in the end, in The Mirror in the Well, liberation may come at the cost of freedom, is perhaps the most remarkable, but not the only consequence of Marcom’s work as a thinker.
It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.
Messud, Claire (2007), The Emperor’s Children, Vintage
In 2007 Susan Faludi published her most recent collection of essays, The Terror Dream, focusing on the effect that 9/11 had on feminism. The thesis she was putting forward in that book was that 9/11 set feminism back whole decades by making the nation revert back to more traditional patterns of thought. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s third novel, published in 2006, ultimately explores a similar issue, although most of the book is over by the time the Twin Towers are hit by a pair of kidnapped planes. Faludi focuses upon the way that post 9/11 marketing effected these changes, how people and the mechanisms that people put into motion hurt whatever progress was achieved during the past decades by propagating “the consolations of a domestic idyll”.
Faludi looks upon the cultural aftermath of 9/11 more than upon what preceded it, which accounts for a few blind spots in her thinking and constitutes the major structural difference to Messud’s novel, which allows little room for the aftermath. Instead, it provides a masterful portrait of what a segment of society looked like in 2001, what it actually was that was supposed to have changed. And Messud does not care for broad sociological assessments, she directs her gaze at the individual level. The results are moving, striking and immensely readable. Not particularly insightful or enlightening, but then the novel does not, I think, attempt to be either.
The Emperor’s Children‘s strengths and weaknesses are rooted in the same quality of the book, which is its focus on characters. The book is spun around a handful of men and women in New York, all of whom, in one way or another, are part of the intelligentsia. Central in the tangled web of relationships is the Thwaite family. The head of that family is Murray Thwaite, a left-wing journalism legend who has made a name for himself as well as quite a large amount of money in all the years Thwaite spent publishing and teaching. His most recent collection of essays having been well received, he is now planning his future and deciding what to do with what he considers his opus magnum, “How To Live”, which, as a project, reminded this reader of Grady Tripp’s 2000 plus page novel (in Chabon’s Wonder Boys). The major similarity is that both books seem to have no restraints and no direction, they just accumulate pages and ideas and grow steadily.
Another unpublished book is the one that Marina Thwaite, Murray’s middle-aged daughter, has promised her editor to finish. In contrast to her father, her problem is not too many pages but too little. Although she has already done all her research, she cannot make herself start work on this book that explores the interrelationship between clothes and, basically, the conditio humana. Marina, like her father, is a well-drawn character, in the sense of being drawn in great and telling detail but, like all the characters in the book, ultimately, she remains a caricature: a former model and still endowed with stunning looks, she is not as smart as many of her friends, blinded by her beauty and charm, think. Messud makes this clear by, cruelly, providing us with a piece from Marina’s book later on. Her most defining trait, however, is the stupendous extent to which she’s self-absorbed, arrogant and egocentric. She is driven by a vague desire to be special, mostly because she is her father’s, to wit, the Emperor’s daughter.
The Thwaite household, and the father-daughter relationship, although not taking up the biggest part of the novel, which accords each of its five main characters roughly the same space, is central to the novel’s construction. All the plot strands intersect now and then in Thwaite’s house, and the two Thwaite family members often act as catalysts for the story. Additionally, the father-daughter relationship provides a foil to look at the smallest social unit, the family, in a way that evokes mythical stories told and retold through the ages. Although the novel appears to have been written in an upper-class social realism, Jamesian, one is almost tempted to call it, the fact that its characters are almost never anything else but caricatures points into a different direction. Every character appears to be a conglomerate of other literary characters and traditions, reaching up into contemporary popular culture. But, like Murray and Marina, where a mythic substructure is merely suggested, the other references, too, are rather low-key.
One of the few direct and strong reference, and possibly the most important one of all, is found in the description of an overweight college dropout called Frederick Tubbs, nicknamed Bootie. Bootie Tubbs is an autodidact who appears to be the spitting image of the Toole’s character Ignatius J. Reilly from his masterful debut novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the surname of a major supporting character in both books is Minkoff, another clue). Ignatius is as grandiose as he is rotund; he is possessed of an impeccable literary taste (as far as the classics are concerned) which is balanced by atrocious taste in other things, not least of which is fashion. Bootie Tubbs, too, neglects his appearance in favor of what he sees as his self-education, spurned by Emerson’s philosophy (In Messud’s novel, Emerson takes the role that Boethius has in Toole’s). The reader of both novels quickly suspects that both Ignatius and Tubbs, respectively, are not as smart, insightful and well-read as they may think, both are thoroughly unlikeable and loveable characters at the same time. Tubbs, more or less accidentally, changes everyone he touches, on a personal level. This is interesting, since Tubbs defines himself on the basis of his intellectual appetite, but is shown to be of no consequence in this regard. Here’s the first significance of the Toole reference: Ignatius, who considers himself a thoroughly cerebral creature, is constantly shown up by, for lack of better words, life, which happens to all of the five major characters in The Emperor’s Children, as well. And we see how bodily reality is resistant to vapid and fashionable theorizing. When one among their number is grievously wounded and scarred for life, he insists upon the autonomy of his experience, he resists his friends’ making sense of it in the terms of their way of reading the world.
If I haven’t mentioned yet what actually happens, it’s because it’s not very important. The usual, so to say. One woman marries the man she loves, another is engaged in an illicit tryst. We see some people’s fortunes rise, some fall; we see some writers being published, others not. These things do not seem to actually happen; on the contrary, Messud appears to be constantly quoting or paraphrasing traditional plots, deriving her effects from similarities and contrasts with her predecessors. But here’s where 9/11 steps up to the plate. It serves, like the scar, as a corrective to the life of the mind that the characters have been leading so far, which is not necessarily a good thing. We see a return of most characters to the fold, we hear that Murray Thwaite’s empty, but grandiloquent philosophy that he has been sketching in that mysterious manuscript, “How To Live” is probably going to succeed, and that a critical newspaper will not be launched in the foreseeable time.
A Confederacy of Dunces is titled after an epigraph by Jonathan Swift, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” and truly, throughout that book, Ignatius is convinced that he is the victim of such a confederacy. In Messud’s book, we are, at first, led to believe that everybody is such a dunce, until everything crumbles like the Twin Towers, and we see the dunces emerge victoriously. It’s Murray and his daughter. That image, of the powerful head of the family rising above it all, and his daughter, returned, in a way, to him, rising, too, is an indictment of the state of a society at least as harsh as Faludi’s, but delivered in a much softer voice. Murray is the Emperor in more ways than one; the other way that the term is used is in the sense of the “The Emperor has no clothes” expression. This novel shows how a patriarchal society works, how it supports intellectual laziness, how its structured by a general sense of entitlement that’s strongest the closer one gets to the center.
Messud’s novel is dominated by light banter, and she’s an incredible prose writer. However, she amasses so many details, builds such complex, soapish plots, that the power of her ideas is somewhat lost now and then. It is still a very good novel, but digging through a huge pile of well-written but empty, because ultimately self-referential, sentences, can be taxing at times. Some readers may find the effort not worth it.
I have been jumping up and down with glee for a few minutes now, metaphorically speaking. Sez the hollywood reporter:
In a stunning move, sources say Fox has renewed Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” for next fall.
The official announcement will not be made until Monday at the network’s upfront presentation, but sources confirm a deal has been struck for another 13 episodes. Fox plans to continue the show on Fridays next fall.
Tatsumi, Yoshihiro (2009), A Drifting Life, Drawn and Quarterly
[Translated by Taro Nettleton]
Since I am generally decently well read, strange or unknown translations do not normally bewilder me. This book here, Tatsumi’s mammoth A Drifting Life, is different, since in what concerns comics and graphic novels I’m but a novice at best, a consequence of which is the lack of thorough comments on Tatsumi’s artwork in this review (but you can see a sample page here ). A Drifting Life is a graphic novel that an “ editor’s note” proclaims to be an autobiography from what appears to be one of the most important artists in Japanese comics. It was translated by Taro Nettleton, but the fact that we can read it now is mostly due to Adrian Tomine, who is the editor of a series of English publications of Tatsumi’s books, all with Drawn and Quarterly, a Canadian publisher. My edition is gorgeous, very beautiful, but not very forthcoming with information.
What’s the original title of the book? Tomine/Nettleton keep mum about it. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s Gekiga hyoryū, which means, I’m told, “A Gekiga Survivor”; the change in the title is fascinating, as it stresses a completely different aspect of the book. The original title does more justice to the book, but the English title, taking its cue from a passage in the third-to-last panel of the book, is more poetical, perhaps, and lends a much-needed coherence to the book. However, the book is not about a drifting life, it’s rather about a drifting career, about the development of an artist and the industry he worked in the industry that we watch him help shape.
The name of the protagonist is close enough to that of the author to make the dissemblement obvious: Hiroshi Katsumi. Hiroshi, when the book opens, is a teenager, who is obsessed with comics, especially the Japanese variety called Manga. Both he and his sickly brother are avid readers of Manga books and turn out to be talented artists in the genre themselves. When they grow up, developing a love for the genre, an important medium, besides books, which never went out of style, were Manga magazines, which solicited short strips from its young readers and rewarded publication with a medal. From the start, we are told of the way that constrictions of the medium afflict the creative process, as Hiroshi ponders the difference between work on short four-panel pieces and work on longer graphic novels. Incidentally, at this point, I felt left out in the rain by the editor once more. The term “graphic novel” appeared in English in the 1970s and has ever since been the subject of much controversy. As far as I know, the Japanese tradition of using the novel format for comics is older than the English, but Nettleton’s and Tomine’s decision to nonchalantly include this term in the thought processes of a young boy in the early postwar period is problematic, and the reader is completely on his own at this point. No footnotes, no explanations, nothing.
The first chapters are significant in still more ways. For one thing, the first six panels of the book are not primarily concerned with Hiroshi and his story: they relate the situation in Japan directly after the war, linking Hiroshi directly to a historical context:
Hiroshi was ten years old, the war ended during his fourth summer vacation
As we meet Hiroshi, he’s already a Manga fan, but the novel makes no attempt to tell us anything about the war or anything else that happened during that period. The first chapter’s title, “The Birth of Manga”, links the rise of the art form directly to the rise of the nation after the war; thus, when Hiroshi becomes a Manga artist, a circle of sorts is closed. These three elements are shown to be interlinked, interdependent, over and over.
One of the most important factors in the early chapters is their demonstration of how young the early practitioners of the art form were. As we see Hiroshi and his friends establish an alternative tradition to the Manga mainstream, we can’t forget these early chapters. There, even as we watch Hiroshi adulate his heroes, chief among which would be Osamu Tezuka, who debuted in 1946, we are frequently reminded of the fact that they, too, are barely of age. The first hint of this is offered when we are told, as Hiroshi, on his way to school, crosses through the yard of a medical school, that it is this very school, where, at the time, Tezuka was enrolled as a student. When, later, Hiroshi and his friends start publishing work that pushes the envelope in a young but already firmly set genre, they, too, are just of age. The youthful energy, the anger, the hunger for something new, are portrayed as the most important factors in creating art.
Refreshingly, in all the discussions of the artistic achievement of Manga artists and the development of the genre, Tatsumi never discusses talent or other innate factors. Instead, he focuses on two things, both of which have already been mentioned. One is the energy and the questing mind of the artist. This is shown to be important on a personal level: Hiroshi, growing up and becoming successful, has ups and downs in his creative confidence and the quality and quantity of his output. To a large extent, this is explained through the presence of that energy or the lack of it. The other important factor is the medium in which Mangas were distributed. The difference between large format books, short books, short stories, longer novels is not merely a marketing distinction. It directly affects artistic output. To write a short, humorous four panel piece calls for different techniques than, perhaps, a 130 page novel. As Hiroshi grows into his own as an artist he commences what his brother calls wasting panels: he incorporates cinematic effects and techniques into comics, taking several panels to describe a short action, so as to depict it in the most vivid way imaginable. This is difficult to achieve in a story that runs slightly less than 20 pages, because you need more room to develop a story, if the action is to have so much breathing space. So, technically, it’s restraining, but at the same time it opens up new possibilities because you can invoke a slew of new moods, and thus enlarge the kinds of stories you can tell. Hiroshi is a generous narrator, freely attributing innovations to his fellow artists, recounting his jealousy as well as his admiration and, most importantly, his urge to improve, to broaden his palette.
Discussions about the mechanics of Hiroshi’s art are at the heart of this book, which, as I mentioned above, is called “A Gekiga Survivor” in the original. Gekiga, according to a friend of Hiroshi’s, is NOT Manga, but when I keep using the term Manga as a catch-all term, I follow Hiroshi’s distinction, who understands Gekiga as a kind of Manga. This may seem like a superfluous observation, but the mere fact that the book would take the time and room to entertain a long discussion about the question whether Gekiga is Manga or not points to the importance of the question of genre; not, I might add, because Tatsumi wants to stress the permanence and importance of genre limits. On the contrary, his careful use of distinctions and genre allows him to show how Hiroshi’s and his friends’ work was at the eye of a cultural storm, taking hints and aspirations from ‘traditional’, Tezuka-style Manga, from movies, hard-boiled novels (especially Spillane’s) and individual inspiration. Genre is shown to be an economical factor, but also a fact of culture, something that fuels literary dynamics.
Tatsumi’s art in the book serves as a perfect way to transmit this. Tatsumi frequently quotes from these sources. Quotes how you may ask? He recreates, in black and white, images from movies, he re-draws panels from artists that he references. They are not cut out and pasted in, they are drawn by the artist, in short: quoted (although here, too, the documentation by the editor is severely lacking). A Drifting Life makes the utmost of the fact that it is a graphic novel and not prose. When, at one point, Hiroshi reflects upon the way that the amount of detail in a panel makes a reader read slower or quicker, that an artist can thus manipulate the speed with which his readers progress through the book, we, the readers, immediately read the book with a different awareness. When a certain brand of satirical humor, contained in certain graphic quirks, is discussed, many a reader will catch himself looking through sections he’s already read, just to re-evaluate them in a new light.
I could go on for ages, because this book is rich, extremely well told, and infinitely fascinating. The narrative is not suspenseful, but it’s full of intricate symbols and foreshadowing, of developments and reversals. I suspect that this book will open up new vistas with each rereading. It is about the possibilities and the necessities of art when the publisher and the artist have to live off it. It refrains from opening a simple and simplistic opposition between greedy publishers and the poor writers, on the contrary, we are apprised of the fact that the progression of not just an artist but his whole art form is inextricably bound to the fact that money is made off it; several times we see the history of Gekiga make a sudden jump forward because the artists are trying to surmount an obstacle. What happened to Gekiga after the 1960s? The book doesn’t tell us, nor does the editor or translator. In the context of the book, I found it significant, that this book, too, was published in several installments, in a Manga magazine., which I found out trawling the net for the information that Tomine denied me. If this book has a weakness, this lack of information is it.
In a way, this is reflected in the choice of a title that I complained about earlier. As I pointed out, Tatsumi’s book does not show us his drifting life, his main character merges into the culture he was influenced by and that he, in turn, influenced. The drifting is Hiroshi’s life as an artist, it’s the drifting of the group of writers who were to identify as members of the Gekiga workshop, drifting as a cultural dynamic. I suspect that the fact that Tomine read the book as narrowly autobiographical led to his lack of explanations. It is generally called an autobiography because Tomine’s short, largely uninformative “Editor’s Note” informs us that it is one and that
the author has chosen to alter some characters’ names, most notably his own.
What’s the use of that, if the author’s name is on the cover? Oh, I know. Because it’s not an autobiography. It may follow Tatsumi’s biography rather closely, but the artist’s decision to withdraw his own name from the book suggests that it’s not, in fact, an autobiography.
I know that many memoirs and autobiographies are in equal parts portraits of a time as they are portraits of a person. But what we’re up against here is a direct decision of the author. He put his name on the cover, but struck it from the book. When he depicts Hiroshi’s older self, the face he draws looks a lot like the author’s photo in the back of the book, but he hachures over it, so as to hide it from the reader. These are clear decisions of the book and it means selling the artist’s work short when we reduce it to the limits of that genre, and act as if there wasn’t any difference to other proponents of it.
Hiroshi’s life is shown to be in service to his art and his fellow artists, something that is reflected on a different level when, many years into his career, he takes on an unpaid job as an editor. The novel is so well constructed, with all its levels reflecting each other that the more profitable reading would look for inward references instead of streamlining a reading as autobiographical. Reading a text as autobiography (which is how genre, generally works) means involving it in a web of references, claims to truth etc.; there is a good reason to accept the narrow definition that Lejeune famously put forward in the autobiographical pact, which (if I remember it correctly) hinges on a correspondence of names. So, I think it’s not an autobiography, not in the common sense, anyway, but it’s still a biographical novel (in the sense of a novel that follows a person’s life, fictitious or not) that shows us the development of an art form through the development of a small group of friends, who grow up in post-WWII Japan and dream of becoming Manga artists, or rather: Gekiga artists:
I’ve drifted along, demanding an endless dream from Gekiga
the protagonist tells us at the end, continuing:
And I…probably…always will.
This endless dream creates a book that is like a long, meandering stream, like a slow burning fire that explodes sometimes in moments of illumination. In the last chapter, the protagonist, his face carefully shaded, another evasion from the autobiographical glare, attends the funeral of Tezuka, bringing the whole book full circle. The book did not, however, work towards that ending; you don’t read it, breathlessly, to finish it. No, here, as in many other good books, the journey is the reward, the glimpse into the birth both of a culture and of an artist in it. This is an incredible book. I have read few like it. Not Tatsumi’s drifting life, but his life of drafting, of drafting panel after panel, story after story, is an inspiration.
Gass, William H. (1989), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey
Orig. published as TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two in 1968
William Gass is an excellent writer. His debut novel, Omensetter’s Luck, published in 1966, is almost frighteningly good. It is the work of a confident and amazingly capable writer. It plays effortlessly on the claviature of culture, evoking the weight of religion, the confusions of the quotidian, and presents an array of thoroughly unforgettable characters. Despite of using narrative innovations, the make-up is somewhat traditional. Two years later, he published both his first collection of short prose, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and this, his short book Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, to which “somewhat traditional” clearly doesn’t apply, at least not what you generally refer as tradition; you can see that even without reading it. See, I have trouble convincing some friends to buy some of the more difficult books I read or review. Not so with this one, which has a unique selling point. Pictures of naked women – or rather: pictures of one naked woman. Lots. Also, funny typography. Lots. Also always a great selling point. Amazon sales rank #844,486 must be solely due to bad marketing.
So, apart from boobs, how’s the book? Short, for one thing. It’s not a novella, more like a slightly longer story, with pictures and quirks. Although, come to think of it, ‘story’, well, maybe not the right word either. A slightly longer short piece of prose. I’ll stick to that now, make of it what you will. The piece of prose is about Babs Masters, the eponymous wife, who is telling this story. Or is she? As the previous lines of meaningless banter have suggested, this is no ordinary story. In a way, this is an experiment about the possibilities of telling stories. The book never just sticks to one kind of text. There’s the stream of consciousness, parts from a play, copies from a different book, coffee stains, and, finally, a more traditional first person narrative, where, for instance, we learn of Babs’ bosom:
There was never any doubt about my bosom, buddy; breasts as big as your butt there, nipples red and rubbery. A regular dairy, my father always said. Babs’ sweet buttery.
In a quote like this, two things stick out. One’s the poetical language, and by this I don’t mean truly poetical language, but language that signifies ‘poetical’ and alliteration’s one of the easiest methods to produce this effect. The other thing’s the way that, even in this short quote that contains rather precise references to all sorts of issues, situating this bawdy comment in a social/cultural context. Not a word wasted here and so it is with the rest of the short book, as well, which is surprising in a book that seems, on the other hand, so wasteful: one page is simply mirrored, the font gets bigger, sometimes for no clear reason, at times the text appears to drop off the page; as I mentioned, the book contains a tiny comic play which is copiously annotated. But, again, nothing wasted, Gass allows himself no indulgencies, the book reads almost austere, grave, monkish, in its efforts to create Art.
The book is one big performance that, of course, raises the question to what extent writing is a performance. The book appears to make fun of the reader, telling him
you’ve been had
but the seriousness of its Art undercuts any such effort. So it’s a performance, an artsy spectacle, a display of craftsmanship and experimentally minded brain, yet at first it does not appear to be a case of l’art pour l’art. The photographs of a naked woman, mostly displayed without a face, tie in well with, for example, the play, which is a play that Babs Masters performed in, and the title connects both these things to more general concerns like gender performance. Again, the book is very earnest about this, carefully making use of jokes and puns, which lose all humor when employed in as clinical a fashion as in this book. You have to read it at least twice, better still, three or four times. This short book can overwhelm you because all the disparate elements are collected in a point that appears to be outside or behind the text, or hidden in a corner or in a particularly fancy letter somewhere. What is that point? Babs Masters? Her body?
A word that is used quite a lot and in different fonts, too, is catafalque, and this is really fitting, too. The whole book is a catafalque of sorts, a bier to support a coffin; more to the point, according to this,
following a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, a catafalque may be used to stand in place of the body at the Absolution of the dead.
So it is with the text as well. For all the concern about bodies and performance, it withdraws the body from the construct, so that the pictures are shown to have a “ceci n’est pas un pipe” effect, and the writing about bodies is just that, writing about bodies, about a female body. As Sigrid Weigel has shown, the connections between writing about women and about foreign continents are strong, as both writings can carry similarly exploratory and colonizing signatures. But this is not part of the conscious train of thought of the text. The book, I think, dead serious from start to finish, merely appears to weigh concerns other than aesthetic, but dismisses them as it goes on.
In the end, this text could be called almost masturbatory, if it wasn’t so joyless, so controlled, so awfully dry, because, as I said, all the humor, all the lust, all the wonky games are mere gestures, they are part of the text as “humor”, “lust” and “wonky games”, drawn up on a drawing table. But, and this may surprise you, I highly, highly recommend the book. It is entertaining, less in a Zizek way and more in a Kant way, to use an inappropriate analogy (that doesn’t work on most levels), but it’s still entertaining. It is awfully well done, William H. Gass is a wizard of a writer, who can achieve any effect at will, completely in control (within the limits etc.) of his material. He is a postmodern experimental writer who is interesting and entertaining and Lord knows there are little enough of those. Colonizing the female body, and conducting a purely aesthetic parlor game, but he’s among the best at that game; plus, it bears repeating: there’s boobs. To quote A Chorus Line: “Tits and Ass, Tits and Ass, have changed my life” (clip is in Italian, but the song’s in English. Starts at 2:13)
Zeh, Juli (2009), Corpus Delicti: Ein Prozess, Schöffling
Do you smoke? Does it bother you to be forced to go outside to smoke? To be frowned upon whenever you light up in public? That people assume you would stop smoking if you had the discipline to do it? Are you overweight? Does it bother you that the bar for obesity is dropping lower and lower, so that any surplus weight is treated as a disorder? That eating healthy is turning into less of a choice and more of something that is expected, normal? In the public eye, the thin, well-proportioned hunks have become norm rather than the pleasant exception; any deviation from that ideal, any perceived deformity, turns into a marked freak show act. Does that irritate you? Does it irritate you how quickly we, as a society, have internalized hygiene standards and have purged that which we consider normal from all taint of filth and dirt? Disinfectants have become the norm rather than the exception in household cleaning utilities. The larger scope of biopolitics aside, on the small scale we have learned to discipline our bodies on our own really well, and the trends there, especially after phenomena like the outbreak of the swine flu, does not bode well for the future. Does this make you mad sometimes? Does this worry you? Well, if so, you’re not alone; it is a widespread concern and Corpus Delicti, Juli Zeh’s most recent novel is a particularly vivid example of that.
Juli Zeh’s career has been a constant success. While the fortunes of young German writers have been inconsistent, Juli Zeh has thrived. Daniel Kehlmann published 5 novels in near obscurity (well, as obscure as a writer can be who is published by Suhrkamp, where his second, third and fourth novel saw the light of day), until, in 2005 he made it big-time with his sixth novel, Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World). Judith Hermann made a huge splash with her critically acclaimed and well-selling first collection of short stories, Sommerhaus, später (Summerhouse, later), and was widely lambasted by the critics for her second collection, Nichts als Gespenster (Nothing but Ghosts). With her third collection, published this month, it is a toss-up. These tales could be continued until dawn, without Zeh’s name ever being called up. Juli Zeh’s debut novel was a huge success and the two novels that followed continued that trend. True, Zeh had always her detractors, but they, too, are somewhat reliably predictable. The main offence that Zeh seems to commit, according to her critics, is the use of overburdening intellectual concepts and constructions. Since, in interviews, Zeh doesn’t always appear to be the most brilliant of writers, not quite understanding some of the concepts she uses, I was always wary.
For various reasons, however, when her latest novel, Corpus Delicti: Ein Prozeß, came out, I picked it up. It’s my first Zeh novel, and in many ways, it’s said to be an atypical effort, so my impressions of the book will not be transferable to other Zeh novels. That said, it’s an ok read. It’s not great, not even very good, and Zeh, as many contemporary German novelists, is an excruciatingly bad stylist, sometimes, but you won’t regret reading it and it has some good moments. Most of the good moments are, of course, ‘borrowed’, that is, they are not due to Zeh’s original writing and/or thinking, but to the source material she used to cobble together the intellectual construction of the book. Corpus Delicti is a science fiction novel, albeit with the SF aspect toned down as much as possible, which depicts a dystopian, in some respects vaguely dictatorial society; as could be expected, the novel owes much to greats of the genre such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. Sadly, taking a SF framework seems to give Zeh the excuse to go for caricatures instead of characters, for puppets instead of persons. Stylistically, and especially in what concerns atmosphere, other important references are stories by Kafka (reading the book, the word ‘Kafkaesque’ comes to mind repeatedly), or by Kunert (for instance the justly celebrated story “Zentralbahnhof”). As with Davis’ collection, Zeh’s novel, too, never transcends her predecessors or is able to beat them at their own game.
This is not a bad thing, however. Zeh’s novel is less an effort to create an original work of Art (note the capital letter), it’s rather an angry screed against developments that Zeh perceives to be harmful in her society; it is meant to be much more disposable than your everyday novel, in a way, it’s performative, like any political pamphlet. It wants to show us where our current policies and attitudes could lead us; it rallies us to protest and to action. It is, however, this lack of interest in making a durable work of art that may, in the long run, prove to be its biggest asset in achieving just that. Whereas critics have repeatedly pointed out the strained ‘artiness’ of Juli Zeh’s novels, from the construction down to the metaphors, in Corpus Delicti, they are balanced by the writer’s fury, which injects a full load of feeling and originality into what would otherwise devolve into a formulaic genre novel, which is not written well enough to hold together. As it is, the reader who sees the context, who feels Zeh’s anger, is whipped into reading it cover to cover with baited breath. Yes, the end is not surprising, but that is the point, isn’t it? The end is inevitable, inescapable, nd necessary. Zeh shouts at you: this will happen. Get a move on. Do something.
The plot is simple: the protagonist, Mia Holl, is mourning her brother, the late Moritz Holl, who was imprisoned because of alleged antisocial, dangerous acts, and membership in a terrorist group, and on death row for murder. In jail, he commits suicide by hanging himself. Before disappearing into the bowels of the System, he had made a few ominous comments about the direction his life was about to take, talking about his new girlfriend, who was apparently responsible for his political awakening. Throughout the book, this girlfriend, whom Mia has never met, keeps her company, a shadow, her better self, the possibility of living a better, more aware life. Mia never believed that her brother was a murderer. Then, all of a sudden, with the possibility of proving Moritz’ innocence hanging in the air, Mia Holl is arrested and prosecuted for, well, for what, exactly? For not conforming to the exigencies of the society she lives in. To be sick is a crime in her society (here Zeh is thinking through an idea of Butler’s classic Erewhon, by putting it into a familiar setting and exploring the reasoning behind that thinking), any kind of excess is criminalized. If today’s politicians are considering to make ‘reckless’ people pay for the cost they are allegedly causing to the health system, in Zeh’s future society they have criminalized antisocial and dangerous behavior. As with many dystopias, the impulse is partly anti-individualistic, as offenders against the public good, who do not behave in as uniform and bland a fashion as the other citizens, are ostracized, jailed and, sometimes, executed.
Totalitarianism is not one of Zeh’s targets, however. The society in the novel is like ours in many respects. This is not 1984. Personal actions and freedoms are stressed time and again (which makes it worse, of course); we see uniformity in just this one aspect, although controlling and disciplining the body may be one of the most important and pernicious parts of public policies. Sickness is a crime in Zeh’s world, because, unless you’re reckless, you won’t get sick. Genetic screening, hygiene and a responsible and well-planned diet are to blame for a squeaky clean society, with zero illnesses. Zeh’s thinking is somewhat troubling, though. Her criticism clearly targets only those policies that discomfort the roughly normal man of today. What happens to people who get, through no fault of their own, into accidents? How does being pregnant work? In Butler’s Erewhon we were indeed offered an explanation for the fact that pregnant women are not prosecuted. Although the logical system in Corpus Delicti is better woven, Zeh leaves crucial components out that do tell us quite a bit about the tacitly accepted norm in the book, which is the basis for its outrage.
As the novel progresses, Mia Holl is more and more caught up in the absurdities of bureaucracy, in a web of defamation, lies and the absurd standards of a society where she is an outcast if she stops toeing the line. I mentioned it above: there is a huge amount of personal freedom in Zeh’s world. It is not so much different from ours in the way we discipline ourselves, in the way we castigate, lampoon and shower with derision those who don’t share what we consider the necessary tenets of society. Other themes of the novel, such as gender, are also, though refracted through the dystopian scenario, reminiscent of our present day; I take, for instance, the rise and fall of the fortunes of a female judge, to be a reflection on the case of district attorney Lichtinghagen. With direct references like this, Zeh doesn’t allow her readers to read the book as an idle or entertaining exercise in thought, instead she hammers home the topicality of it all time and again. The book is a good though preachy read, a quick read, enlivened by the anger of Zeh who thinks we’re ceding control over our bodies. The fact that, as a positive counter-image, she posits a clean, self-controlled, strong human being, something that we can all manage, if we just try, is Corpus Delicti’s major failing. She is not as far from the people she attacks as she may think. In one of the most passionate speeches in the novel, she extols weakness, but this is a sham, a mask. Like much Christian thought, her praise of weakness is rhetorical, it’s a masked strength. In Zeh’s novel there is no room for actual weakness. Weakness is external, the very rhetorical power of her praise of weakness derives from its position on the outside. In short, she may disagree about the order that she thinks our society is heading towards, but she is in favor of just as strong an order herself, even if it is a slightly different one.
racebending.com complained about the whitening of the characters of the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
On December 9th 2008, the lead roles were cast for M Night Shyamalan’s upcoming film The Last Airbender and all of them were originally cast as white actors.
The Nickelodeon show “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” on which this film is based, featured Asian characters in a fantasy setting inspired and informed by a variety of Asian cultures. The characters fight with East Asian martial arts, have Asian features, dress in clothing from Asian cultures, and write with Chinese characters. The cast and setting were a refreshing departure from predominantly white American media, and were a large part of the show’s appeal as well as an inspiration to many Asian American children.
They also (hum) opened a shop at zazzle.com where they reiterated their complaint
Based on the Asian-influenced animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the movie has now cast three white actors to play lead, heroic Asian or Inuit characters. The fourth white actor cast as the lead, antagonist role had been hastily recast, thereby effectively contrasting three white heroes – existing in an Asian-based fantasy world – fighting an (overall) evil brown nation. The production made a choice. That choice sent a clear message:
“American Children of Color: You are not good enough to play the hero, even if that hero shares your ethnicity.”
and offered for sale protest t-shirts, that had, for example, the words: “The Last Airbender: Putting the Cauc back in Asian”, which they had to take down due to copyright violations (see account of that here and a few more motifs). I don’t really think that glockgal (?) has reason to complain, it’s quite transparently a trademark issue, and she’s selling shirts, FFS. But the bigger issue, which is well illustrated by looking at who was whitewashed and who not (see link above or picture here) is troubling, especially since it demonstrates how little, as a culture, we’ve learned, how little we’ve internalized instead of just paying lip service to humane thinking. It is quite frustrating that so many discussions on important issues are structurally (and partly also on the level of actual phrases and formulations) identical with discussions that we had 40, 60, 100 or 200 years ago. And, sometimes, as with amazonfail, a public manifestation of the encrusted hate proves to be the last straw.(via boingboing)
Baldwin, James (1980), Go Tell It On The Mountain, Dell
A few days ago I’ve finished James Baldwin’s first two novels and I’m still reeling from the impact. Baldwin is an extraordinary writer. Although, at least in his early work (which is all I know), he is at best a competent stylist, moving the story along without unnecessarily clunky prose, the energy that pulses in these relatively short novels is imposing. It is not hard to see why Baldwin has become such an important and influential writer, leaving traces all over the American novel, not least in the work of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Subject and structure of these two novels is drastically different. One, Go tell it on the Mountain (1953) is about the ‘black experience’, telling us about the plight of an African-American family in New York and its history that includes the aftermath of slavery in the South. The novel is highly charged with religious fervor and personal desperation and manages to sum up an experience in a few episodes that border upon magical realism sometimes, reminding me of similar novels, such as Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, where revelation plays a similar role. The other, Giovanni’s Room (1956), is about an unmarked American man’s experience in Paris who, while separated from his girlfriend, engages in an affair with a young man, the eponymous Giovanni, which ends in denial and murder. This story is told in so straightforward a manner that a possible reference, and not just because of the setting, is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
Go tell it on the Mountain is three books at once. It’s a depiction of the struggle of an African American family in the 1950s, of the historical struggle between slavery and what for the book was the present time and a vision of the future or rather: a soft-spoken rallying cry, an entreaty to ‘go tell it on the mountain’ that a new generation is born. Despite the different lines of impact, the novel as a whole coheres wonderfully and this is largely due to the structure. It’s cut into three parts. The first, “The Seventh Day”(taking place on a Sunday) introduces the family, and the tensions therein: the protagonist, John, is constantly slighted by his stepfather, Gabriel, who does not accept his stepson as a son at all, focusing instead his love and energies upon his ‘proper’ son, Royal. Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth, mother to both of the boys and to two more daughters, suffers his anger and moods helplessly, as often victimized as John himself. John is a quiet and frail boy, who is repeatedly described as ugly. The lack of love from his stepfather is mirrored in the lack of affection that the world has to offer an unmanly, shy and ugly boy. Royal, in contrast, is strong and boisterous. His father’s attention, far from making him attached to him, appears to him to be well-deserved. He gets into scruffs and arguments with his father now and then, as with the world at large. As the story sets in, he is brought home with a gash on his head, inflicted by a couple of white boys, who felt provoked by him. The section closes as we enter a revivalist church (the “Saints”) with the family, which includes Gabriel’s sister Florence.
The second section, “Prayers of the Saints” switches back and forth between the service as perceived by John, and the memories of three family members that tell us the family history and explain the tensions that we witnessed in the first section. These memories, formally designated as prayers, but taking the form not of prayers but of regular third person narratives lead us all the way back to the south and to the aftermath of the civil war and what it entailed for African Americans. The climate is doubly oppressive. The situation for blacks has not improved immensely; add to that the oppressive force of religion that seems to have the black community where Gabriel and Florence live, in its thrall. The way it’s described, it amounts to internalized oppression, which can be said of much, especially evangelical, religion. The complex relation of evangelical religion to freedom has been often pondered and is, I’d argue, at the heart of the novel. Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) , one of the most important thinkers of American evangelical religion, has repeatedly stressed the harm of slavery, and the fact that before God, race, gender, class is not important. Before God, everybody is equal, not separate but equal, but completely, unreservedly equal. The allure of this thinking for marginalized groups cannot be underestimated; nor, alas, the ineffectual way that this thinking has worked on the reality of marginalized groups.
The idea of an equality in the afterlife appears to have freed many from trying to achieve that equality in the real world (although with Edwards, the spiritual world is more real than the real world. A conundrum), religion has often served the function of the “opiate for the masses” (credit where credit is due), literary traces of that function are all over the record, including Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The allure and the promise of that thinking, however, stayed active and dominate the present of the novel’s events as well, but I’ll return to that. For now, we’re in the community that is dominated by an oppressive brand of religion. Florence, at the first opportunity, flees the south and moves north. It is remarkable how the north, even after slavery and the civil war, is more than a simple destination, it’s a promise of something different, of an absence of racism, of a secular way of life, of an absence of gender oppression. Characters in the novel hope for all of these, one time or another, but are disappointed in one way or another. Gabriel, converting after his sister leaves, marries an older, barren woman in a gesture of renunciation of pleasure, takes himself a lover after a while and sires a child. Since he rejects woman and child, the pregnant lover moves north to Chicago but dies soon. The illegitimate son returns, is troubled by the climate in his mother’s home community and leaves again for Chicago where he, too, dies.
The fact that leaving and staying amounts to the same thing, as far as the character’s future happiness is concerned, is important for the claustrophobic overall feeling that pervades the three memories. Interestingly, writing this book from within an oppressed minority allowed Baldwin to focus upon oppressed groups within that group. Privilege isn’t a gift that the privileged can bestow upon a class of oppressed, privilege is, I think, a relative value, the center/periphery dichotomies are constantly at work, which Go Tell It On The Mountain beautifully illustrates. The strength of the patriarchal and able-bodied center, that disdains women and anything perceived as weak or bodily deficient is chilling in that we find Gabriel, as husband and stepfather, continuing the patterns of oppression that he’s suffered as a black boy in the south, only in a system where he is the center. Royal’s boisterousness and brashness needs to be read from that angle as well: he suffers from racism in the north, but he doesn’t actually ‘suffer’ it, he resents it, he expects to be kowtowed to and does not like being oppressed and marginalized in a different system. But the novel is adamant in not giving a voice to white people or Royal, instead, most of the time, we hear John’s voice (the whole book’s written in a third person subjective, just the person changes).
In the second section we get to hear both Florence and Elizabeth, who offer the first and last prayer/memory respectively. The middle (center?) memory is Gabriel’s, but it serves less as an affirmation of his worth; we witness instead the problems that Gabriel suffers, we see a torn and conflicted man, who tries to be everything at once. A man, a minister, an African American etc., but who comes to grief repeatedly. After the death of his first wife he travels to the north, only to find out that there is racism there, as well, although these aspects of the story are not narrated in his prayer. Gabriel’s identity is thoroughly contradictory, but he fails to understand this; Gabriel doesn’t have a single insight throughout the whole book. He is pummeled by society and lashes back at those that he’s allowed to hit. Later, in Elizabeth’s prayer, we are apprised of Robert, John’s father, who has been falsely accused of robbery; Robert has been jailed and humiliated. After his innocence had been proven in court, and he’s been released from prison, we find that the punishing apparatus has completely broken him. Within weeks he crumbles and finally commits suicide. In the end, Elizabeth and Gabriel marry, but both the unresolved issues within Gabriel and John’s existence continuously trouble their marriage. John is especially problematic since he is both a reminder of Gabriel’s lost illegitimate son and of the persistence of sin, since John was conceived and born out of wedlock. With the marriage, the second section ends, having basically described the situation that John, in the present, finds himself in.
The third and last section is called “The Threshing Floor”, referring to the space between the pulpit and the pews, where in revivalist churches people are allowed and encouraged, to fall into a trance, to talk in tongues, in short, to experience conversion. All of a sudden, John is seized by a vision, the minutiae of which are too complex to discuss, but as a whole, it’s the most impressive piece of writing in the whole novel. In his conversion all the strands of the novel are gathered together, especially the role of religion as an emancipatory/oppressive instrument. John is clearly freed by the conversion, or rather: enabled. It is more than acceptance by a community, it is a general, so to say: divine acceptance. The importance of it is not reducible to his future role in the community as “one of them”. On the contrary, it affirms him as an individual, it gives him the strength necessary to go ahead. In a way, it even sunders him from his community, by stamping him with a seal, symbolized by another man’s kiss on his forehead; I read this seal or mark as taking up the damaging myth of Cain in a way much like Hesse did in his dark, flawed and prophetic novel Demian, taking it up, that is, in order to reverse the value judgment that accompanies it. His final words are “I’m coming. I’m on my way.” and these words are more than a simple statement of what he’s doing. They are a statement of intent; indeed, as much of this novel has shed light upon the ‘black experience’, so does this last sentence. He’s coming, indeed. As he’s one of my current preoccupations, I’ll return to Jonathan Edwards for a second here. Edwards maintained that conversion isn’t a revelation in the narrow sense, you are not revealed new knowledge. Instead, conversion makes you see clearer, understand better. So if I say that this book is a revelation, this is the sense of the word I use. It is a revelation and its power cannot be overestimated, the tangents that it’s writer’s thinking is pursuing are far too numerous to mention. There is a whole world, a simmering explosion within the pages of this book. You can’t not read it.
Bellow, Saul (1996), Seize the Day, Penguin
Saul Bellow is a great writer and his novels never disappoint; on the contrary most of them belong to the best that this century has to offer in the form. Plots, however, are not his forte, most of his books feel somewhat too long; after all, all of us remember the labored ending of the otherwise stunningly excellent Humboldt’s Gift. His insights into his culture and the (male) human beings in it, are valuable throughout, and his prose is a joy to read. Thus, it is no surprise that Seize the Day, his fourth novel (published in 1956), which is extraordinarily short, in my edition just 119 pages, is a success from start to finish. It doesn’t follow a convoluted plot: instead we accompany its protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, né Adler, on a trek through New York, on one single day. By now we the readers are well acquainted with the device of having a novel take place within the narrow confines of twenty-four hours, but, since Seize the Day, structurally, resembles a short story rather than a ‘proper’ novel, reaching into the dustbin of literary history for Joycean analogies is, perhaps, inappropriate.
This single day is a special, a peculiar day, this we know early on. Tommy Wilhelm has reached the end of his rope. He isn’t the smartest of men, nor the most adept at making the best out of a bad situation. He is divorced and financially on shaky grounds yet he pays his former wife far more than he would have to, at least according to his father. But Tommy Wilhelm gladly pays the money, as long as he’s able to, presumably because that gesture of generosity offers him a sort of redemption, a meaning in his otherwise empty and luckless life. He can’t admit to this, of course, and he doesn’t need to: Tommy is a pro at self-deception. When, many years ago, a grandiose Hollywood agent told him that he should be in the movies, he believed him, moved to Hollywood and overstayed his welcome. Even as all the signs suggested that this may not be the best place for him, he persevered, until circumstances (i.e. failure) made it impossible for him to continue deluding himself.
This proves to be a pattern in Tommy’s life: slipping into a habit of self-deception until circumstances shake him up and awaken him to the state he’s really in. Although we are deprived of details of his marriage, it is quite probable that he noticed its failure only after his wife left him (or a comparable scenario). He notices too late that he is on his way out in his job as a salesman, and, in an effort to correct his tardy recognition of the fact, overreacts and quits, which puts him in a precarious financial situation. Tommy appears incapable of planning or spending his money responsibly. Paying his former wife hand over fist, stumbling in and out of a career as a salesman is one aspect of this; the other, far more damaging aspect of his myopia is the fact that, as his money starts running out, engages in a dubious financial operation with a strange, suspicious man who turns out to be a con man. The day that we accompany Tommy on his errands in NYC, he signs over his very last money to that man, Dr. Tamkin.
Dr. Tamkin is easily the most intriguing character of the book. Tommy’s father and his respectable friends, who know Tamkin by name, have long suspected him of being a crook; in fact, his behavior is so dodgy and smooth at the same time that even Tommy, who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, repeatedly considers severing his ties to that curious man. Bellow’s portrayal of Tamkin is another one of his justly celebrated Dickensian character sketches:
What a creature Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull’s nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver’s brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda-like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful – but were they? And honest – but was Dr.Tamkin honest?
Dr. Tamkin, by the way, professes to be a psychologist, quite a successful and rich specimen of his guild, too, who likes to hazard his money in speculations now and then, although, as he makes clear, the danger’s rather small. As we all know, we who have been subjected to at least one enthusiastic salesman who tried to sell us a stock or a stock depot or some other very clever investment, these investments are always almost ‘risk-free’, until we are broke, that is. And we are talking about honest brokers here. The risks suddenly multiply when we add a con scheme to the scenario. So, Tommy keeps suspecting Tamkin of being a crook, to the point of paranoia, but at the end of the day, he trusts him with his money.
Part of the reason for that is, most likely, the fact that Tommy’s not on best terms with his father, as we could have expected once we found out that Tommy took a gentile name, rejecting the paternal “Adler” for the more majestic “Wilhelm”. Turns out, Tommy’s father is a retired rich man and could be said to hate his son. Fathers who are dissatisfied with the way their sons have turned out is an old topos in literature, but Mr. Adler’s feelings are remarkable in that he’s frequently almost disgusted by his son. Interestingly, much of his disdain focuses upon the physical aspects of his son. Not only does he not like the way his looks have turned out, he also considers his son dirty, literally feculent and filthy. In one of the few passages where we hear Mr. Adler think, he’s almost obsessively considering his son’s grimy fingernails. Clearly, this father has no love to offer his son, consequently the scorned 40 year old junior is constantly foraging for people who would be able and willing to show him affection and respect, so he ends up with Dr. Tamkin.
That crook is not just the only person throughout the whole novel to show Tommy affection, he is also the one who gives him valuable advice on how to make his life worth living again: seize the day (ahem), dare to grasp an opportunity, live life to the fullest as long as you’re able to. On the one hand, it describes Dr. Tamkin himself, who is not afraid of grabbing his opportunities whenever they present themselves, including the opportunity to take Tommy’s money and disappear; on the other hand, he follows up his advice with a bit of practical help. As if he’d sensed that Tommy would continue to bumble through his life even with miserable financial prospects, he deprives him of the opportunity to do so by taking all his money, forcing our sad protagonist to change his game. The novel ends with a cathartic epiphany. We do not get a clean conclusion, Tommy’s life is still hanging in the balance, but he has been transformed, we feel. He has broken through his behavioral pattern and stepped free of his self-deception.
Earlier I said that this novel bears the marks of a short story. Now, as a conclusion of sorts, I want to propose a different genre affinity: the Bildungsroman. The very name of the protagonist, Wilhelm, made me think of Wilhelm Meister, quite possibly the most famous ‘Wilhelm’ of literary history. Franko Moretti, in his interesting (if flawed) international study of the Bildungsroman, The Way of the World, claimed that there are two kinds of Bildungsromane: the classificational and the transformational kind. The first one encompasses all the classic German Bildungsromane, including Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (In order to fit it into that category, Moretti severely misreads the book, but that’s beside the point), that is novels that are carefully structured, that are didactic and that depend upon a clear and meaningful ending that shows us the protagonist’s progress from child to youth to adult and demonstrates how he’s grown as an intellectual/artist/… and adapted to the society around him.
The other kind of novel, which Moretti sees exemplified in Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale, focuses on the process of transformation. Although Seize the Day takes place during the course of a single day and features not a child or a teenager but a middle-aged man, I think it could well be regarded as a transformational Bildungsroman, or at least as a parody of one. The very structure of the plot fits this idea quite well, since it starts with the father and his good advice, after which the son leaves his home (or his father’s hotel) to pursue his path. He will encounter various people, he will fail at least once, and he will receive advice. All of these things transform him so that, at the (open) end, we have a changed, even grown, Tommy Wilhelm, who could turn his life around. This is an extraordinary novel, full of hidden, and not so hidden, riches. The characters are all delightful, if not lovable, and the writing breaks your heart every other page.