James Merrill: Days of 1964
Houses, an embassy, the hospital.
Our neighborhood sun-cured if trembling still
In pools of the night’s rain . . .
Across the street that led to the center of town
A steep hill kept one company part way
Or could be climbed in twenty minutes
For some literally breathtaking views,
Framed by umbrella pines, of city and sea.
Underfoot, cyclamen, autumn crocus grew
Spangled as with fine sweat among the relics
Of good times had by all. If not Olympus,
An out-of-earshot, year-round hillside revel.
I brought home flowers from my climbs.
Kyria Kleo who cleans for us
Put them in water, sighing Virgin, Virgin.
Her legs hurt. She wore brown, was fat, past fifty,
And looked like a Palmyra matron
Copied in lard and horsehair. How she loved
You, me, loved us all, the bird, the cat!
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened
All day with it, or pain, or both.
(We did not notably communicate.)
She lived nearby with her pious mother
And wastrel son. She called me her real son.
I paid her generously, I dare say.
Love makes one generous. Look at us. We’d known
Each other so briefly that instead of sleeping
We lay whole nights, open, in the lamplight,
And gazed, or traded stories.
One hour comes back—you gasping in my arms
With love, or laughter, or both,
I having just remembered and told you
What I’d looked up to see on my way downtown at noon:
poor old Kleo, her aching legs,
Trudging into the pines. I called.
Called three times before she turned.
Above a tight, skyblue sweater, her face
Was painted. Yes. Her face was painted
Clown-white, white of the moon by daylight,
Lidded with pearl, mouth a poinsettia leaf.
Eat me, pay me—the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.
Startled mute, we had stared—was love illusion?—
And gone our ways. Next, I was crossing a square
In which a moveable outdoor market’s
Vegetables, chickens, pottery kept materializing
Through a dream-press of hagglers each at heart
Leery lest he be taken, plucked,
The bird, the flower of that November mildness,
Self lost up soft clay paths, or found, foothold,
Where the bud throbs awake
The better to be nipped, self on its knees in mud—
Here I stopped cold, for both our sakes;
And calmer on my way home bought us fruit.
Forgive me if you read this. (And may Kyria Kleo,
Should someone ever put it into Greek
And read it aloud to her, forgive me, too.)
I had gone so long without loving,
I hardly knew what I was thinking.
Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing
Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears— or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.
When you’re one of the few to land on your feet / What do you do to make ends meet? / Teach. / Make them mad, make them sad, make them add two and two. / Make them me, make them you, make them do what you want them to. / Make them laugh, make them cry, make them lie down and die.
Énard, Mathias (2010), Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, Actes Sud
This has never happened to me before : upon finishing Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants (~ talk to them about battles, kings and elephants) I was ready to toss a coin in order to decide whether this, Mathias Énard’s fifth book, was a success or not. It may often take me some time to puzzle out details of books, but I have never been as much at a loss about the basic quality of a book as I was in this case. The reason for my bewilderment is due to the highly original structure and writing of the book, and to Énard’s enormous basic skills as a prose writer. The same project and approach, in the hands of a lesser writer, could easily be chalked up as a bad failure. What Énard did was to take a little known episode in the life of the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, and develop it in a highly elliptical way. In only 155 narrow pages, the book attempts to do justice not just to a rich and sumptuous setting, but it also tries to contain clashes of civilizations, and the biographies of three of the most remarkable men of their age: Michelangelo himself, Sultan Bayezid II (also known as Bayezid the Just) and the early important Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. Ottoman poetry, the development of a complex architectural structure and the difficulties of being an artist in a violent world that appears to be constantly at war are just a few of the themes that crowd this small book. There is no doubt that no book of this length could do any justice to as convoluted and complicated a set of topics and problems, yet Énard tries. We can see how good a writer he is by the mere fact that his method, an impressionistic, fragmented, superficial narrative that is more about the act of telling stories than about the story it purports to tell, appears to us, on finishing the book, to be the only way to convincingly work through the topics, places, biographies and ideas. Énard is highly convincing, and yet the book falls significantly short. It’s a failure, but, at the same time, it’s a valiant effort, and as far as brave failures go, the end result is, for example, a far better book than Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. To sum up: Mathias Énard’s new novel Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants is a failure, but an interesting, intriguing one. It’s certainly a book worth reading, especially given it’s extremely short length.
Born in 1972, Mathias Énard is a very young writer given the depth and volume of his work so far. Apart from two translations (of an Iranian and a Lebanese writer), he has published four other books before Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, the first of which was published in 2003. His penultimate novel, Zone, published in 2008, could well be regarded as his breakthrough achievement, winning several prizes and being translated into English (2010, Open Letter Press, trans. Charlotte Mandell) and German (2010, Berlin Verlag, trans. Holger Focker) among other languages. Zone is a 500 page novel consisting of a single sentence, a long, sometimes rambling, exploration of war, memory and violence. The contrast to Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants, its immediate successor, following less than two years later, couldn’t be stronger. Although a second look at the book disproves the feeling, one is left with the impression of the book being constructed from a surfeit of small and smaller sentences, observations, impressions, fleeting thoughts. Part of that impression is likely due to the fact that the book consists indeed of small structures. The whole of the book is divided into tiny chapters which usually contain less than two full pages of text. And each of the chapters is well constructed, these are not continuous narratives interlaced, but small, self-sufficient prose pieces, each advancing the plot. There is barely (if any) temporal overlap, so the cut at the end of each chapter marks a jump in time. Sometimes we jump days or weeks ahead, sometimes just a few hours, but the overall effect stays the same: we are not allowed to take root in this world that Énard sketches for us, as he shoves us from event to event, from character to character. There is no authorial comment that would take us by the hand and lead us through this, but the short, elliptical chapters achieve the same thing, they bolster Énard’s authority as a storyteller, demanding we follow him, no questions asked. It may seem banal to say that the reader only sees what the author wants him to see, but it’s a relevant observation here, because Mathias Énard knows about the places and people that crowd his book, yet he does not allow us, as readers, the same knowledge.
What we know are small, labeled tidbits, just enough to understand what is happening and to have an idea of why these things are happening, but that’s all. The author’s patience with and generosity for his readers has strong, and clearly defined limits. This also explains the superficial way that places and characters are introduced. Since we are denied a deeper knowledge, Énard fills his book with flat declarations of fact, such as substituting the name Michelangelo with this description, early in the book: “le sculpteur sans égal, futur peintre de génie et immense architecte”. This tone, asking us to take it or leave it, is pervasive throughout the book. In a way, this is an invocation of the old art of oral storytelling, where the authority of the storyteller held enough weight so that simple declarative bits of information could stand without being questioned. This is buttressed by the book’s link to one of Rudyard Kipling’s books: Énard took the title of his novel from Kipling’s preface of his little known collection of stories Life’s Handicap. This preface contains a fictitious discussion with “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who instructs Kipling’s persona in how to tell a story; this is what he tells him:
Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night.
In this short preface, Kipling presents us with two worlds, two kinds of storytelling. There is the cynical, critical, careful way of storytelling that is prevalent in the west, and is caused by employment of the written word, which allows critics to scour texts for mistakes, infidelities or problems. The other way is Gobind’s, the spoken word, which endows the teller of tales with a certain authority, speaking to his audience as to children (because all people “are children in the matter of tales.”). And in order to provide a spellbinding telling, you speak “of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels”. In Gobind’s assertion, this is not meant condescendingly, and Kipling doesn’t mean it that way either. His book is, after all, subtitled “being stories of mine own people”. And when he ends by saying that the most important stories are those omitted, he doesn’t aggrandize himself necessarily, he assigns a value to silence. All this is vastly different with Mathias Énard who only keeps the oral storyteller link and the ellipsis. In fact, it makes a great deal of sense to read the project of Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants as being, in part, the opposite of what Kipling intended in his book that, again, Énard references explicitly.
The contrast is most easily seen if we look at a passage roughly halfway through the book that lightly paraphrases the above Kipling quote, yet endows it with an utterly different spin:
Je sais que les hommes sont des enfants qui chassent leur désespoir par la colère, leur peur dans l’amour ; au vide, ils répondent en construisant des châteaux et des temples. Ils s’accrochent à des récits, ils les poussent devant eux comme des étendards ; chacun fait sienne une histoire pour se rattacher à la foule qui la partage. On les conquiert en leur parlant de batailles, de rois, d’éléphants et d’êtres merveilleux ; en leur racontant le bonheur qu’il y aura au-delà de la mort, la lumière vive qui a présidé à leur naissance, les anges qui leur tournent autour, les démons qui les menacent, et l’amour, l’amour, cette promesse d’oubli et de satiété. Parle-leur de tout cela, et ils t’aimeront ; ils feront de toi l’égal d’un dieu.
Kipling’s preface proposes a power of stories that goes both ways, a dependence on wisdom that includes the storyteller himself, who is asked to listen to the poor people. There is nothing of that in Énard’s novel, which talks down to its audience and eschews listening. This is not necessarily a bad trait, but it appears to be an odd and very deliberate change of gears. Given the fact that the book itself is basically constructed according to the rules not of Kipling’s preface but of the condescending note in Énard’s own book, this makes for an interesting, though slightly off-putting mixture. This aloofness that engulfs the whole novel does, however, fit into the gilded setting of the book, which does not appear to portray the Renaissance as much as it does reflect well-worn ideas of how the Renaissance has been and should be portrayed. In other words, this is not so much about the Renaissance as it is about “the Renaissance”, if understand what I mean. There is no immediacy here, and most of the central characters suffer greatly from this. There is no depth, no plausibility in the Michelangelo that we are offered, for example (despite Énard’s use of letters and suchlike, devices which usually fulfill just that kind of function) and yet it’s hard to see Énard being perturbed by this fact. Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants doesn’t need to be believed, it demands to be admired, “l’égal d’un dieu”. This intention is buttressed by the haughty poeticisms that crop up everywhere. Instead of probing for plausible emotions, or truly poetic and original images, Énard gives us tried-and-true phrases that can be extraordinarily beautiful, but in an arch, disinterested way. As the book progresses, we are presented with expressions of sadness, of love, of artistic ambition and fear, but all of them stay on the surface, none of them manages to spill over to the less-than-gullible reader. This can mean two things: either he aimed for the lazy reader, easily swayed by cheap imitations of poetic depth, or the archness is the whole point of the book.
I prefer that latter reading, in part because it has the more interesting implications. Shortly before the passage I quoted earlier, the character giving said speech says the following:
Je voudrais tant que tu conserves quelque chose. Que tu emportes une partie de moi. Que se transmette mon pays lointain, non pas un vague souvenir, une image, mais l’énergie d’une étoile, sa vibration dans le noir. Une vérité.
It’s well to remember that this book talks about an obscure historical episode. Realism, emotional truthful writing, well developed characters would certainly heighten the verisimilitude of the whole undertaking, but they would not actually add to the ‘truth’. In Énard’s historical narrative, the silences, omissions, gaps may serve a purpose in highlighting the empty spaces of written and recorded history. For the most part, he keeps to the historical record (he appends a list of sources to the book), and the superficial way of labeling and introducing characters could be read as a reflection of the paucity of these very sources. But here’s why the book is a failure: if Énard had decided to stick to his sources, to develop a narrative of gaps of knowledge, of empty spaces, his writing style might have cohered perfectly. But in a remarkable display of lack of authorial discipline, he adds sentimental inventions. He adds a tale of obsession, love and assassination, completely invented, and written in the same slick, smooth style. Thus, the main achievement of Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’élephants appears to be an aesthetic one. Énard provides an exercise in l’art pour l’art, fin de siècle decadence. He imitates tropes and gestures from periods like that, but laced with a noncommittal arrogance. The central dismissive stance is never balanced, never subverted, or amended, as the author appears to think that artistic perfection, perfect historical miniatures, would be enough. If only they were, perfect, that is. This book has, as I’ve been trying to show, such an enormously broad scope, it’s project is so ambitious that it can be read in all manner of ways, without utterly excelling at any single one of them. It’s, after all is said and done, a valiant attempt, fueled by a strong literary vision, and as such it’s very recommended. It’s also recommended for the occasional passages of truly beautiful prose, and for the odd startling juxtaposition of art forms and cultures (topics that I have not been able to raise here). It’s not a great book, not even a very good book, but the attempt is more than laudable. Read it. If you want a different, much more positive take on the book, please read the Fric Frac Club review by Francois Monti, excellent as always, which praises the book very highly, reading Énard as “un classique moderne”.
Edit 1. Although this novel has not yet been translated, here is a very interesting interview with Charlotte Mandell, who translated Énard’s Zone into English.
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John Donne: To His Mistress Going to Bed
Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou, Angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them:
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed.
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife, show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why than,
What need’st thou have more covering than a man?
Broke stride as last of men realized their deep deceit. / This troubling advance of half-assed crews crowd these streets. / Never mind of who I am, son, just listen when I speak / Broken paragraphs hold wrath of a hundred million deep. / Bleak circumstance led masses to only want to dance / A bastard child of Reaganomics posed in a B-Boy stance / Make our leaders play minstrel, Left with none to lead our people. / How the fuck am I gonna shake your hand, when we never been seen as equals? / Deemed evil by those housed in church steeples. / False prophets read backwards from broken tablets to the feeble, / I seen you! / Regurgitate their lies. / I’ll bide my time with scrolls and ancient’s wine. / Heady brew left mark on this hazy scribe. / If stars align I suppose even the blind will see, / How they stole our last voice, corrupted culture into industry. / Few minutes remain, a tame soul wanders wild when it dreams. / Mine are filled with ill visions of soot and dope fiends. / These slit wrists won’t rest till I spill these last drops. /Tarnished skin only sin when I awoke on sidewalk. / Seen your movements through peripheral / Remain same individual. / When a man’s viewed as criminal to act animal is logical. / Audible tones honed to hold substance / Form sentence / Poor reluctant poet, speak prose / Refuse to beg repentance / Reluctant poet speak prose / Incite our peoples / We got raked through those coals / Once the truth was divulged. / Conscience calls thoughts subliminal / Actions all cyclical / Deplorable descendants of men depressed clinical. / Answers seem visible when visionless / Useless souls fold under pressure like hands pray to false Jesus. / Inadequate adversaries advance awkwardly. / Anger expressed outwardly / Causes ranks to break amongst these frail MC’s. / Your fictional tales told with conviction. / Concise concepts once written enter bloodstream / since this inks been forbidden. / Distorted poet, speak prosen / Incite our peoples / We got raked over coals / But the truth’s still untold. / Meaning lost to these zealots / Prefer bullets to ballots / Watch the rich sip from chalice / As these eyes fill with malice / Peasant hands remain callous / as our days retain darkness / I swallow razor blades to keep my vocal cords sharpened. / Morbid mixture of mistrust and anger paints picture. / Perception now blurred words slurred to form scripture. / These sullen souls misinformed / Storm gates of stronghold / Strange fate that I chose / Morbid poet speak prose. / Tattered voices arose / Red Blood written on scroll / Escapes throat an ill flow / For my violence atoned. / Modest thoughts monotone / Infant MC’s play grown / Found them hung in hallways / from cords on microphones
Die Mainufer, künstlich begradigt & befestigt, kaum höher scheinend als 1 Bordsteinkante, – so bietet der korsettierte Fluß-selber den Anblick einer breiten, asfaltierten Chaussee – ohne Menschen, ohne Fahrzeuge, in Finsternis belassen u leer. – Vielleicht zweihundert Meter weiter über den Fluss sich streckend die “Friedensbrücke” – ihre Kanten leuchtend konturiert vom selben kaltglühenden Blau wie das Geschäftshochhaus mit dem zungebläkenden Firmenzeichen, als hätte 1 Schulkind dies gemalt & aus Bequemlichkeit für beides, Firmenhaus & Brücke, dasselbe Blau aus dem Tuschkasten verwendet. – Wir bleiben stehn auf dem kleinen gemauerten & umzäunten Plattformviereck am Rand des Mains, sehen die Stadt: Als stützten Metallröhren glitzernd mit winzigen Tröpfchen beschweißt im hitzigen Dunkel die tief herabgedrückte Decke Eineshimmels ohne Regen ohne Wind. Starr u verschlossen Dienacht, eine Kammer aus Blei. Frankfurt die Bleistadt.
from Reinhard Jirgl‘s most recent novel Die Stille.
Yang, Gene Luen (2006), American Born Chinese, Square Fish
American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, created only five years into his career in comics, won several prizes and deservedly so. Among several honors it was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award; additionally, it won the coveted Eisner award, the Reuben award, and the Michael L. Printz award. However, being a NBA finalist (in the YA fiction category) is especially interesting and significant: Gene Luen Yang, who is both writer and artist, didn’t just produce a superior graphic novel, one of the best books of the non-superhero comic genre I’ve recently read, but a surprisingly complex young adult novel, within whatever convention. At 233 generously-margined pages, it’s not a big book, yet the story it tells, of Asian-American identity in a predominantly white(seeming) culture, is told with the scope of a larger, more epic book. Told not just through the writing: Yang’s art work (and Lark Pien’s colors) is simple, cartoonish, yet it delivers its points with aplomb; American Born Chinese is a serious book, one that makes concise and important points about second generation immigrant experience; but Yang’s art, as well as the light, humorous but never farcical dialogue, make this an entertaining, an amusing read. Yang creates indelible characters, although he doesn’t need all of them to be realistic, three-dimensional representations of reality. Instead, he weaves together myth, stark media criticism and a emotionally moving story of an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy growing up, and not just with what seems like effortlessness. As we read through the last pages of the book we can’t help but realize that Yang has managed to tie off the various strands of his story with a sophisticated flourish that is (to be honest) quite unexpected from comic books written for children.
These strands mainly consist of three stories told separately, in alternating chapters. All three are drawn in the exact same style, differing only in small respects, if at all, which helps bring home the idea that all three stories are really only about different aspects of the same story, i.e. what it’s like to be an ‘American Born Chinese’ boy. These three stories, similar though they look, draw on different traditions, and reference different media, different ways of telling a tale. This absolves Yang from having to be openly preachy or lecturing in the most ‘realistic’ strand of the book, because he can rely on our knowledge of these modes of writing and storytelling. He knows that in our heads, all this comes together and makes sense in an obvious yet not obtrusive way. The conventions and lines of thought and plot are so clear and move the book along so quickly, that, at the end, as all three stories finally collapse into a single one, we are even slightly taken aback. This moment of explicit synthesis at the end poses more of a challenge than the separated strands did in the bulk of the book. All these aspects show that Yang is an artist both with a profound knowledge both of the extent of our knowledge of cultural termini, tropes and markers, and with the ability to use this knowledge in a way that is accessible and rewarding. American Born Chinese is a book for young adults, and it continues a trend in recent YA fiction of creating art that does not talk down to its pimpled audience, but involves them both emotionally as well as intellectually in surprising ways. The most surprising way of them all is Yang’s decision to make the final tweak, the last part, less about shock, less about hammering a moral stance into its readers. No, the final section is about art, it asks its readers to really think about the function of each of the three story lines. This is easily the most elegant, smart, self-reflexive ending I’ve read in a book targeted at young adults in a long, long time.
Much of the complexity of this derives from the first of these story strands, a re-telling of the story of the Monkey King from the Chinese classic Journey To The West. This is a novel about a monk’s pilgrimage through China to India, accompanied by his three protectors, three mythical helpers. Among them: Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. The monk barely makes an appearance in the book, which rather looks at Sun Wukong’s life before he became the monk’s protector. It tells us about how Wukong became one of the most powerful demons of his time. We see how he learns the “Arts of Kung Fu”, including the “Four Major Heavenly Disciplines”, yet when he tries to enter a dinner party for demons, spirits and gods, he is thrown out by the scruff of his neck on account of his merely being a monkey. Sun Wukong then proceeds to throw the heavens into Chaos, defeating heavenly armies, beating up Gods and so on. The diminutive monkey seethes with anger, trying to force the Gods, spirits and demons of the heavens to acknowledge him as an equal. Eventually, he uses his skills to change his shape, making himself taller and stronger of body; this change marks a difference even to his fellow monkeys, and places him, as a queer mixture of monkey and humanoid demon, between two worlds without being able to belong to either. It takes the Buddha himself to take him down a notch: after losing a challenge posed to him by the chubby deity, the Monkey King finds himself trapped for several hundred years under a mountain, until the monk comes and frees him. The story, as sketched out here, is canonical. There is little that Yang actually changed about it, it is straight myth, though told with a lightness of tone befitting the book’s audience. What is interesting is the visual aspect of it all: on the one hand, Yang’s panels crawl with a slapstick-like humor, on the other hand, his representations of demons and Gods are clearly rooted in traditional imagery, containing echoes of traditional Chinese theater masks.
In as smart a book as this, depictions of traditional masks and looks are not merely there to display ethnic roots or connections. Yang also uses them because they conform to Western readers’ expectations of how Asian cultures look, and of how traditional Asian stories would have to be told visually. The implicit light satirical criticism is enhanced by the other non-realistic story, which is introduced to us with a TV title card saying “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee”, accompanied by a stereotypical/racist picture of a Chinese person with buck teeth, a long black braid, a cap, sallow skin and slanted eyes. On the bottom line of the frame the word “clap” is printed several times, suggesting a clapping audience. As this first panel makes abundantly clear, we’ve entered the territory of contemporary myth here, so to say. This story is told in the form of a sitcom, with the prerequisite laughs (“ha ha” printed several times on the bottom of the ostensibly humorous frame in question), and the typical looks, postures and narrative build-ups of the genre. While Wukong’s tale was genuinely funny, this one isn’t, at all; it is a rather intense (yet not preachy) criticism of the way we represent immigrants in the media, our easy way with racial and cukltural stereotypes. While the example of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” may seem exaggerated, characters like Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali from the hit TV show Big Bang Theory (or indeed the brand new sitcom Outsourced) show that Yang is not far off his mark with this satire. More importantly, however, it sets the ‘traditionally Chinese’ masks and pictures from the Monkey King story in a context of how Asian narratives are told and framed in general. Also, the themes of belonging (or not) to groups that discriminate based on looks, of the imperfection of not being quite Godly enough in one case, or not being All-American enough in the other, these themes are raised and presented in two related, but very different ways.
All of this sets the stage for the main story, the story of Jin Wang, whose parents immigrated to the US from China. Jin Wang grew up in San Francisco first but his parents soon move to an unnamed different city, where Jin has to attend an elementary school with just one other Asian-American student. As a scrawny, differently-looking kid, he is picked on by many of the other students but seems to find a place for himself within the complicated hierarchy of school life, an achievement that is threatened when one day a first-generation immigrant boy (whom Jin calls an “F.O.B.” as in “Fresh Off the Boat”) enters the school. To survive in that school (sarkastically named “Mayflower Elementary”) means for Jin to be -or at least seem- less different than the majority around him. The new student, who speaks Chinese, and looks and acts much less like a regular American boy, is in danger of reminding the others of just how Asian (as opposed to Asian-American) Jin actually looks. But, his initial hostility eventually wanes, and he strikes up a friendship with the new boy that will even carry over into his high school years. All this is just preamble, told in a quick, almost matter of fact way. What follows is much more typical of the ordinary teenage experience and yet contrasts starkly with how the ordinary American teenager might have experienced it. Jin falls in love and, shamed by his different looks, tries to change himself into a more regular kind of teenager. This story is warm and readers of the same age group can easily relate to the woes and worries of Jin, yet unlike most of the readers, Jin runs into a wall of racism and prejudice now and then in a way that white Americans won’t. There are no easy answers for his problems and questions, and to his credit, Gene Luen Yang doesn’t try to provide them.
Instead, he uses the “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” show and the Monkey King narrative as parameters of what complicates the usual American romantic high school experience (falling in love, courting, being shy and euphoric etc.) for Asian-Americans like Jin. There is tradition, in the form of tales told by grandparents, and in texts and movies one is expected to read or watch, and there is the racist incomprehension of the vagaries of ethnic (or religious) difference. Make no mistake: Yang doesn’t throw his hands up in the face of it all. The complexity of the problem is his point, and the potential that is hidden in this chaos. American Born Chinese is everything at once. An entertaining read, an insightful deliberation on immigrant experience in the US, and a seductively crafted comic. The simplicity of the forms Yang uses turn out to fit each story as if they were created especially for them. And in a way, they were. The two contextualizing stories of American Born Chinese are, at basically allegorical, and not retellings of old stories qua old stories, but modern re-creations that just contain old proper names. In this, Yang follows the tradition of books like Journey To The West, which is itself a complicated set of allegories, pretending to retell the monk’s story but really providing an intellectual and spiritual mirror for its own time. What Yang offers us are three stories of being challenged by difference, wrapped in a book that might, read by avid children all over the country, just make a difference. Read the book, buy it for others, and follow Gene Luen Yang’s career. I expect great things from him.
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Elizabeth Bishop: Filling Station
Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
to a disturbing, over-all
Be careful with that match!
Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.
Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.
Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)
Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
Bishop. Student in Cologne/Bonn? Join this course. It’s pretty awesome, because I’m there, and it’s about Bishop, who’s purty awesome, too. (this fills my “awesome” quota today).
In this brief snippet, Blixa Bargeld talk a bit about his appreciation of Sonic Youth’s use of guitars. The interview is in German, but with serviceable English subtitles.
Roth, Philip (2010), Nemesis, Jonathan Cape
The World Health Organization defines poliomyelitis, also known as polio, this way:
[It] is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system. Many infected people have no symptoms, but do excrete the virus in their faeces, hence transmitting infection to others. Initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis, which is often permanent. Polio can only be prevented by immunization.
Before being virtually eradicated in most first world countries, it wreaked havoc in all of them. To this day roughly 40.000 polio survivors still live in Germany alone. The United States have known several outbreaks of polio before in 1962 a polio vaccine was licensed and distributed. Between 1916 and the late 1950s, polio broke out practically each summer, in various areas of the country, but with varying degrees of aggressiveness. One of the most devastating outbreaks (and easily the most aggressive outbreak since 1916) was the polio epidemic of 1944, which lasted for 5 months and affected just over 17.000 cases. The powerfully frightening effect of the sickness was exacerbated by the fact that people didn’t know yet how to cure the disease or even how it was transmitted. Until the research of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and their colleagues bore fruit in the 1950s, polio continuously killed, maimed or at least frightened children and teenagers, as well as their overwhelmed parents. Philip Roth, born in 1933, who was 11 years old at the time of the epidemic, chose to set his most recent book in just that period of time; and as is the case in most of his other recent output, the contact with personal or national history, as well as the impact of memories and the pathos of remembrance invigorates a work that has become tired and dull of late. It’s a joy to see a master craftsman (as Roth proves himself to be even in ridiculous novels such as Everyman) infuse his writing with more than routine.
And as a result of all this, Nemesis, Philip Roth’s 31st book, is easily his best novel in ten years. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t rise to the same heights as his very best work, but it unites both Roth’s impeccable prose craftsmanship and a compelling story and characters. In the past ten years, after publishing The Human Stain, Philip Roth waited to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In order to achieve this, he published a short novel once a year for the last five years. All of them could be read as career summoning achievements. Exit Ghost wrapped up the Zuckerman stories, and both Indignation and The Humbling (my review) were epics of getting old, stories that featured the typical Roth protagonist (a mix between Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh) as he battled age and decrepitude. Bursting at the seams with a lifetime of learning and misogyny, these are each succinct summaries of Roth’s work. On the other hand, this is unfair, since his work is so much better, fresher and more powerful. In fact, some of these books, especially the miserable Everyman, read like parodies of Roth, or at least like lifeless imitations. Roth doesn’t seem to be able to reach for something new: instead he re-works his old books, and in a way his recent novels present a cruel reading of the Roth oeuvre. None of these books are worth recommending to anyone but die-hard Roth devotees. Nemesis is different. While it does rely a lot on characters and types already developed by its author in previous novels, the result (and the drama) is new, and very, very good. The two Roth novels it is probably closest to are American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, but these are resemblances that are not overt or troubling in any way. Instead, Nemesis seems to be what Roth’s previous 5-6 novels tried but failed to become: a synthesis, a summary of a strand of his work that is more than imitation or creative cut & paste.
Nemesis‘ protagonist is 23 year old Bucky Cantor, a beautiful, strong, virile man, accomplished at sports and dutiful to a fault. Bucky’s grandfather had raised him to “stand up for himself as a man and to stand up for himself as a Jew”, to have pride in what he was and to have both sturdy convictions, as well as the courage to stand by them. Bucky, in many ways, is the ideal soldier and he did attempt to join the army when WWII broke out but due to his poor eyesight he was exempted from military service. Now, in the summer of 1944, while his best friends fight Nazis in France, he is a playground director in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey. His girlfriend, from a good Jewish family, works at a summer resort and wants him to come as well, but he is loath to abandon his duties at the playground. This reticence only deepens when suddenly kids from his playground start to come down with polio, ending up in iron lungs or dead. Bucky is at a loss how to deal with this. He talks to parents, is attentive as far as hygienic matters are concerned, he tries to look out for the kids, but polio, when it arrives in Weequahic, comes out of nowhere, an invisible enemy, impossible to fight. Early in the book, before Weequahic kids are infected, there is an opportunity to face off against a visible, tangible enemy. “[T]wo cars full of Italians” pull up and Italian boys saunter up to Bucky’s playground, declaring: “we’re spreadin’ polio”. These Italians are from a Newark slum “that had reported the most cases of polio in the city so far”, and Bucky is determined not to let them spread the sickness in his neighborhood, as well. With this confrontation, the book presents its readers with the social and political parameters the rest of the novel will then continue to use. There are the working class boys, determined not to “leave you people out”, i.e. driven by resentment against a better off, healthier part of the city. On the other hand, there are the very uptight, religious, conservative, middle-class citizens of Weequahic, who couldn’t have chosen a better champion for their cause than Bucky.
This opposition is only one side of the coin, however. With the expression “you people”, the Italian ruffians don’t of course merely mean “you rich people”. There is no doubt that “you people” is also simply short for “you Jews”. With this episode placed near the beginning of the novel, we’re soon made to be aware of two levels of signification here. There is the story of Bucky Cantor and his attempt to save the kids of his neighborhood from dying of polio. And there is a clever substructure that plays with notions connected to antisemitism and medieval jew-hate and possibly even Zionism. This is not a full-fledged allegory, rather, Roth has put a few elements into play. There is polio which is clearly a stand-in for the plague. In the Middle Ages, Jews were often scapegoats for outbreaks of the plague. They were said to poison the wells, kill Christian children, etc. In Nemesis, Roth makes two kinds of use of this vile accusation: there are the Italians, who spit on the sidewalk to bring the plague to the Jews, which reverses the situation. And then there is the reaction of the citizens of Newark once polio takes over Weequahic, turning it into the most affected neighborhood: “Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it.” Thus, things fall apart in Nemesis. Just as the superior standing of Weequahic residents takes a dive in the course of the book, so does Bucky’s personal life. After confronting the Italians and heading them off, he is left without a clear course of action, so what he does, in a way, is to offer ministration. He visits sick children in the hospital, attends funerals, and is generally the first person to call afflicted families in order to see whether he can help. He tries to ease tensions between various groups of Weequahic residents, and gets the kids out of the glaring sun whenever possible. Small things like that.
It is no accident that Philip Roth named his protagonist “Cantor”, because Bucky fills, in a non-religious, non-musical way, the role that a cantor would play in the spiritual life of a synagogue. There’s also a certain irony in that naming: as the book progresses, and more and more children fall sick or die, Bucky loses his faith in God. Or rather, he still believes God exists, but assumes that God is evil, that, for any of the faithful, it is just a matter of time before “He sticks His shiv in their back.” The primary reason for Bucky’s bitterness is not just the dying kids. It is the insidious way that God seems to kill these children, and the cruel way that He seems to make Bucky the instrument of His murderous game. And while the people of his generation die in the war against Germany (or Japan), the younger generation is struck by invisible bullets, shot from an invisible gun. As we read on and on, Bucky’s story becomes a tragic one. The disastrous developments in the city around him are increasingly mirrored by disastrous developments within himself. There’s his loss of faith, but more importantly, there is his fear of being responsible for everything. When things come to a head in Weequahic, he finally heeds the advice of his girlfriend, and takes up a job at a summer resort far, far away from the polio-ridden streets of Newark. Only it doesn’t take very long until the first boy at that resort, this innocent-seeming paradise (that could, to take up an earlier argument, be seen as a stand-in for Israel, Jews fleeing from Antisemitism, who can’t, ultimately, flee from it because it always catches up with them), until a boy that was under Bucky’s supervision falls ill and is diagnosed with polio. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Henceforth, Bucky is plagued by the question “Who brought polio here if not me?” We can anticipate that this will happen, because Roth has led us there, with a light and clear narrative.
We are made to see that what happens to Bucky Cantor is, as is the case in all the classic tragedies, necessary, destined, inescapable, because of Bucky’s harmatia. His weakness is his inability to reconcile his poor eyesight with his impeccable body, his amazingly disciplined mind. His eyesight is beyond his control, he can’t will his eyes to see clearer, and so for him, there is a line that connects his body (the body that fails him) first to polio which he doesn’t understand and can’t fight, and then to God, who he can’t fight and at whose mercy he finds himself to be. The inability to deal with bodily imperfection poisons his mind so deeply and thoroughly that everything else that happens follows. It is impossible to describe how different Bucky is from Roth’s usual characters. Roth’s characters, even when they are weak, acknowledge that weakness with a swagger. There is a constant sense of superiority in them. A character who is as desperately earnest as Bucky Cantor is rare in Roth’s work. He does, however, contain characteristic traits from several characters in Roth’s oeuvre. More to the point, he appears to be a mélange of the Swede from American Pastoral and the typical Roth/Zuckermann/Kepesh persona, with added insecurities and earnestness. This focus on character flaws as leading to a tragic destiny is supported by a web of Greek allusions and influences. There is not just the eponymous Nemesis, the Greek spirit of divine retribution. Roth also constructed Bucky Cantor to correspond in several respects to Achilles, and, as with the other subtext, various elements of the story can be seen to have an equivalent in events as re-told by the Illiad or other Greek texts of the period. Apollo’s invisible arrows bringing the plague, Achilles’ unique handsomeness, and his proverbial heel, it all fits the mold.
While none of these two allusions to Antisemitism and to Greek myth, are exact, and used in a thorough manner, they are nevertheless relevant here, and more than just imaginary, because Nemesis puts a strong emphasis (as many of Roth’s novels do) on the process of storytelling, and the reliability of memory and individual stories. Nemesis is not told by Bucky, nor by an omniscient narrator. It is told by someone who was a boy when all this happened. The narrator, for almost the complete novel, is invisible. He refers to himself only once when naming three infected boys, including himself among them. At the end of the book, however, he breaks off the narrative, and returns us to a more contemporary setting. He tells us how he encountered Bucky many years later, and how Bucky then told him his story, which he, in turn, relates to us. In a way, we, Bucky and the narrator are part of a sophisticated game of Chinese whispers, and the mythical and historical parallels and allusions remind us of the fact that Bucky’s story is told to us in a highly complex, clever and accomplished way. How many real people actually resemble Achilles? Really, Nemesis is about the loss of childhood illusions, the loss of unfettered belief in the invincibility of admired authority figures, the loss of security as we enter a life of uncertainties, a world of violence, death and warring faiths. Although the story is literarily heightened, the book still presents a stark look at history, and unlike his previous exercises in considering history, Roth really comes though, this time. There is no sugarcoating at the end, no comforting adage or twist. Nemesis is bleak, moving, and marvelously written. Yes, it is too careful, too timid, too conventional to be great, but it is a very good novel about growing up in the modern world, and the interconnection of American history with Antisemitism, myth and archetype.
A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.
Walt Whitman, “A Glimpse”
A GLIMPSE, through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room, around the stove,
late of a winter night–And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;
A long while, amid the noises of coming and going–of drinking and
oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little,
perhaps not a word.
This is from the Calamus sequence in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A post on the Merrill list this afternoon reminded me of it. These are all magnificent poems.
Since posting this poem by Les Murray I have not been able to stop reading Les Murray’s Collected Poems. So here is another one.
Les Murray: Poetry and Religion
Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.
A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.
Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?
You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror
that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry
or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.
Here is “An oral history of Rising UP and Rising Down”, a collection of people connected to Vollmann or his publisher McSweeney’s remembering the writing, editing and fact-checking that had gone into publishing Vollmann’s multi-volume treatise on violence. Very worth reading.
Copyediting this book was difficult. Vollmann writes in the voice of a man who’s going to examine every assumption and pursue every thought; he uses all these ornate grammatical constructions and really intricate punctuation. The syntax feels almost seventeenth-century in its crazy rigor; it’s like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy or something.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1972), Weep not, Child, Heinemann ISBN 0-435-90007-2
Frantz Fanon once wrote that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” And in the work of acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o this relationship between the historical process and the necessary and unnecessary violence that accompanies it, is always clear, visible and foregrounded, along with issues of religion and culture. This does not mean that he is a one-dimensional writer. The breadth and power of his work is extraordinary. Ngũgĩ, who, until 1970, was called James Ngũgĩ, has produced fiction, non-fiction and drama at a steady pace, creating a singular body of work and becoming one of Africa’s best and most important writers; actually, he’s become well known and respected throughout the literary world for his many excellent novels, or his essays or his plays. To delve into his work, to look at his speeches and essays, to listen to the voices of his characters can be an invigorating experience. His most well known novels are probably A Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1977) and the recent Wizard of the Crow (2004). As the first two of these books show, Ngũgĩ is a writer who draws directly on history, his narratives are infused by and to no small extent dependent on historical and cultural contexts. Both novels deal with recent Kenyan history, with the Mau Mau rebellion and Kenya’s first year as an independent nation. The third book, a satirical fantasy, is somewhat different. There’s another difference: the third of these books has been originally published in Gĩkũyũ, a Kenyan language. James Ngũgĩ rejected his Christian name and the English language in favor of a Gĩkũyũ name and a career of writing in the Gĩkũyũ language. This is entirely consistent with his political thinking. In the late 1960s, Ngũgĩ became an adherent of Marx and Frantz Fanon, influences which did not just shape his political thinking, but also his writing, and his attitude towards language, translation and related cultural issues. This shift seems rather obvious if we look at the highly politicized fiction Ngũgĩ keeps publishing, fiction that not only led to his own imprisonment and eventual exile, but also to people like his Gĩkũyũ publisher Henry Chacava living dangerous lives. But to examine Ngũgĩ’s debut novel Weep not, Child, published in 1964, pre-Fanon, by a young university student, is to notice the continuities in his work. Although it was not the first novel he had written, it was in fact the first to be published and despite its many flaws, it’s an impressive work of art. What’s more, it demonstrates political and social concerns that have become constant themes of Ngũgĩ’s work since. It would be facile to identify the politics in his books from 1967 onwards with the influence of Marxism and Fanonism. He would be a less impressive, less powerful, less great writer if his political and social insights could be reduced to the influence of two very specific ideologies. Any close reading of Weep not, Child will conclude that Ngũgĩ’s critical instincts are merely very close to the positions held by Marxism, and while Marxism did help to focus and develop his instincts and his thinking, the seeds of it were already there, in his observations of the post-colonial landscape in Kenya. Ngũgĩ is not primarily a political thinker and his power and importance is not in the strength or insight of that thinking, but it is part and parcel of his literary craft, and for a writer to dip so deeply into history, a certain level of political and historical insight is necessary in order to pull it off. Ngũgĩ’s work manages to work with raw historical materials without sacrificing literary complexity, marrying both a sense of urgency and an aesthetic appreciation for the art of the novel. And his essays, in collections like Writers in Politics and Homecoming, for example, are worth reading for the same reason. His earlier essays suffer a bit from a back stiffened by jargon, but in everything I read of his, his urgent, beautiful voice shines through.
And reading several of his novels chronologically, one notices that Ngũgĩ is a serious, careful writer: in his work there appears to be a hunger for accuracy, and a willingness to switch through different perspectives, different periods to get it just right, see things, and the process of history in just the right light. And yet, in so many ways, he did get it right, right off the bat, in his first published novel. Weep not, Child is a thin book, a mere 154 pages, and yet, between the first and the last page, a whole world has fallen apart. Like many African novels, including recent ones like Ondjaki’s Bom Dia Camaradas (2001), Ngũgĩ makes use of the perspective of a high school student who witnesses his country’s disintegration, sees how order around him, i.e. school and family order, collapse, give way to violence, fear and outrage. The novel’s protagonist, Njoroge, is a bright and talented student. The novel begins with his entering school, and throughout his academic career he will be at the top of his class, excelling because he’s driven by a thirst for knowledge and by an obligation to succeed. Because, for him, education is a rare privilege. It’s expensive, and not necessarily usual for a boy his age with his background to attend several schools and to learn English, and history and other things. It is no accident that Ngũgĩ’s novel begins with Njoroge’s “unspoken wish, his undivulged dream” to have an education, to attend school. For Kenyans and other African writers of Ngũgĩ’s time, Western-style education was important, as was Christian culture. And Njoroge is in no position to resist that appeal, that, as Nigerian critic Obi Walli wrote, “uncritical acceptance of English and French as the inevitable medium of educated African writing.” Major writers such as Soyinka and Achebe continued to write in English, who was a small village boy to think otherwise? In fact, Ngũgĩ himself had not switched over to Gĩkũyũ yet, and he had not yet developed a strong resistance to Christian doctrine. In 1964, when he composed his debut novel, Ngũgĩ still played by the rules. Seen in this light, it’s all the more remarkable that the novel itself already displays a deep suspicion towards the merits of Western education in a shifting political landscape, of going to school in a time when one’s country is exploited by white settlers, when you are governed by a political structure that can at best be called ‘feudal’. Njoroge loves school, and he quickly cottons to religion, but at the same time the world around him keeps reminding him of the limits of the world that learning and faith constructs. In a series of harsh little vignettes, Njoroge is shown the cruelty and brutality of political change. At the same time, the book doesn’t really pontificate, it is not a straightforward political screed, instead seems bent inward, crooked with though, exploring the paradoxes that Njoroge is entangled in, the conflicts arising from his place in his society and his individuality and quest for personal knowledge and growth. In a way, it seems a product of ongoing thought, not of finished speech. The book is not as surefooted as his later works, not half as cocky and adventuresome as his later non-fiction. This is not yet the writer who would, in 1970, stand in front of the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and declare: “I am not even a Christian”, and assert that “in Kenya, [Christianity] was built on the inequality and hatred between men and the consequent subjugation of the black race by the white race.” Instead, the Ngũgĩ of Weep not, Child decides to weigh the issues, letting them simmer while the country around his protagonist burns in the fire of the Mau Mau rebellion. For Njoroge, the rebellion is doubly important: additionally to whatever effect this may have on the country as a whole, members of his family are personally involved in the whole business. His father, a proud farmer, believes in prophecies and in the fact that the Kenyan land will eventually be returned to its rightful owners, the Kenyan people. Except for one massive angry outburst, he is a Gandhi-like figure, resisting passively, suffering enormous pain for his cause without inflicting like pain on his opponents.
Njoroge’s brothers, though, trained as they are by the British army (having fought in both World Wars for them), are experienced killers, and quick to temper. Angered by the racist policies and treatment accorded to black Kenyan’s, they end up, quickly enough, in the front line of the rebellion, shooting officials, being captured, escaping. They have little patience either for their father’s mule-headed passivity, nor for their brother’s interest in knowledge, faith and English. It is not by accident that I have mentioned male characters exclusively, so far. The feudal reign of the British, and the raw violence unleashed on both sides finds an odd equivalent in the patriarchal structure of Kenyan society. This is a society that doesn’t just know and accept polygamy, but one that also practices female genital mutilation. Frankly, I was shocked by the offhand, careless way that Ngũgĩ seems to treat this horrifying practice (and the lack of moral stance towards it in books that put a stronger emphasis on it, like his second published novel The River Between which looks at the conflict between tribal tradition and modern mores) but this lack of attention is highly important for the novel, it makes it, oddly, better, because it’s part of its queer ambiguities, and of the issues that the book explores and critiques. Njoroge, his father and his brothers are all representative of various kinds of masculine ways to act. Some are seen as virtuous and praiseworthy, others are ultimately regarded as so despicable, so craven and cowardly, that Njoroge, the man acting that way, will end up trying to hang himself. The last paragraph of the novel effectively denies him his masculinity, confirms his weakness. Ngũgĩ is clearly interested in this aspect of gender. Like other excellent poets of revolutionary history such as Heiner Müller, Ngũgĩ seems unable to discuss historical turbulence without connecting it to gender issues, unable to discuss public structures without connecting them to private ones. In this light, the offhand use of female genital mutilation, of gender stereotypes and of polygamist family structures perfectly fits the violent, feudal society they take place in. As does the language. Of all the elements of the book, Ngũgĩ’s language was probably what was most vexing and strange for me as a reader. The language is extremely simple, yet not colloquial. At times it reads like a high school essay, with its short sentences, the limping rhythm of the prose and the stilted, unnatural dialogue. It seems like a quick, interlinear translation, done without a thought for how the finished product might sound in the target language. For that reason alone, the first dozen pages can be a chore to read, but as we read on, the book suddenly hits its stride. Not because the style is so much better later, but because the odd style starts to coalesce, it starts to make sense. The book is largely written in free indirect speech, yet it’s not focused on Njoroge alone, and still the voice doesn’t change much. The reason for this is that Ngũgĩ has, in a way, created an omniscient-seeming narrator who is actually rather limited, a simple man, sharing perhaps Njoroge’s kind of education and sophistication. This way, Ngũgĩ manages to write about poor and simple people without any condescension, and create a narrative framework and a narrative logic that is not that of an outsider and we as readers are allowed to partake of that logic. The narrator and the protagonist are both a bit distanced from the main action of the book, onlookers, thus allowing us to see and feel, but not forcing us to do so. Ngũgĩ has created a ponderous, ambiguous little book, one where the author leaves various plot elements and bits of landscape and furniture comment on one another without creating a necessity for explicit or brash authorial comments. As readers, what we are left with is a terribly entangled situation, one where removing one elements comes at the cost of destabilizing another, where everything is connected and any call for change would have to take into account the whole situation. As Jomo Kenyatta, anthropologist and first President of Kenya, wrote in his very readable book Facing Mount Kenya (1938): “For the present, it is impossible for a member of the [Gĩkũyũ] tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” (a position also held by people like Leonard Woolf). Neither Kenyatta nor Ngũgĩ are, of course, defenders of the practice, but issues like these demonstrate the intractable nature of many cultural conflicts arising in the wake of decolonization. Given these tensions the ensuing violence is hardly surprising, and writing about that kind of violence is difficult and has led to the creation of more bad than good books. Weep not, Child, its title echoing both Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane, is not merely a good book. It is also the first novel of a prodigious career. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has turned into one of the best living novelists, and one of our most urgent and committed political thinkers. Because the seeds of his work are all already on board, and because it is a fine novel in its own right, Weep not, Child is a book well worth reading.
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Les Murray: The Mitchells
I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white
bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.
The first man, if asked, would say I’m one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,
say I’m one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.
Thursday, the Literature Nobel is going to be announced, and I’m rooting for a poet. Personally, I am hoping for John Ashbery, but why not Australian giant Les Murray? The poem below is from his staggering Collected Poems, an unbelievably great collection of poetry.
Mantel, Hilary (2004), An Experiment in Love, Harper
During the past year, it was hard to escape articles about or interviews with Hilary Mantel. Almost unanimous critical praise for her most recent novel Wolf Hall, a flood of praise and attention which culminated in her winning, among other things, the 2009 Booker Prize, and did not abate for months after that. I was, erroneously, under the impression that Mantel was some sort of historical novelist, given that Wolf Hall (and the next novel, according to some interviews I read), as well as A Place of Greater Safety are about periods long past, taking place on the territory of the historical romance. So I was startled to find that Mantel has indeed written books in a more contemporary setting, although imbued by a vivid sense of history and the interconnectedness and roots of community. One of these books, her 1995 novel An Experiment in Love, is an absolute marvel of a book. I may have the tendency to be too effusive in my reviews, but books like this one deserve all the adulation, praise and wonderment we can muster. Mantel’s book, set in 1970s Britain, is about a young girl’s or woman’s process of growing up, and growing into adult life. That sounds simple, and in many ways, the book is committed to a certain efficient simplicity. There are no extraneous plot strands, no superfluous characters, everything is part of Mantel’s overarching vision, and her small coterie of characters and places fit each into their assigned places in that vision without straining the overall control and structure. The book’s intentions are, one might say, small-scale. The historical view of the British 1970s is particular and careful. There are no sweeping panoramas of society, no large disquisitions on the state of politics and there is no need to provide a variety of naturalistic ‘slices of life’ for Hilary Mantel. There is just Carmel McBain, her protagonist, and what happens to her during her final years at school and first years at university. My ability to contextualize her life are naturally limited, yet for several reasons, her life rings true and is absolutely believable. The conclusion of the book, and the way it wraps up the whole epoch and a section of female experience, is all the more devastating. An Experiment in Love is a great novel. It may seem small, in more than one way, but it most certainly is not. It is a novel that is both economically written and readable, smart and moving, authentic yet densely constructed.
The plot is roughly chronological, but contains so many flashbacks that it, in effect, takes place on three different levels. The most obvious and most direct are Carmel’s university years. We follow her as she finds her room in the dormitory at London University and leave her years later, as she has matured, both in matters of love as well as academically. This account is threaded through and through with flashbacks to her time at school, first at a regular school, and then at a posh Catholic grammar school to prepare her for university. Each phase of her life, school, grammar school and university adds at least one significant person to her life, and when, at the end of the books, events come to a head, she is, in a way, forced to look through the ranks of the friends and acquaintances she has acquired and understand their role in her life and how her life is connected to theirs. The person who seems most significant at the end, whether in a good or a bad way I won’t divulge just yet, is Karina, the first friend she makes at school, who will accompany her throughout grammar school and university. At times, in the book, the two levels, university and school, seem to run alongside, but not only are the school days more often framed as flashbacks. There’s also the fact that Carmel has to explain to fellow university/dorm students the odd behavior of Karina, and the book never quite distinguishes between remembered history and re-told history, dependent on the contextual use of that telling. All this is further complicated by the fact that a third level exists, beside school and university days. That third level is the present day. The first sentence of the novel is “This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia.” The narrator here is Carmel, and on that third level, we never leave “this morning” and since there are no indicators as to when exactly “this morning” is, we are led to believe that it is roughly the time of the book’s publication, i.e. 1995. The present day narrative is a sort of frame story for the whole book, providing not just bridges and segues between the different smaller episodes, and between school and university years. That means it is difficult to really persist in calling the schooltime narrative ‘flashbacks’, because not all of them are.
Some are memories dredged up by the present day narrator, some are remembered by the university-era narrator (as remembered by the present day narrator) and some are told to fellow university-era friends. If I make it all sound complicated, that’s not how the reader experiences the book, which is a smooth and supple read. However, Hilary Mantel shows herself to be a consummate prose writer and her elaborate narrative structure helps her touch on several registers and evoke different emotions and appeal to different readers without really compromising any single narrative. Also, it is important to note that Mantel’s protagonist addresses an audience. There is no explicit listener in the frame narrative, but through devices such as procatalepsis, the narrator often pre-empts and adresses objections her readers might have. We as readers are taken by the hand, we are part of a dialogue. This is important because, in fact, communication, connectivity, is a central concern of the book. This book is not merely about Carmel McBain and her friends Julia and Karina. This book tries to be about far more: a book on the female experience at the beginning of the Thatcher era. To manage that, the book mixes two different kinds of écritures. There’s authentic, almost memoirist writing, and there is artfully heightened near-allegorical writing. The first is Mantel’s way in, her basic connection of the material to the time and to actual female experience. Of course, there’s a distancing moment, and of course plots and devices further that distance, but the multiple re-framing of memory as detailed above lets the reader see a life, though told by one and the same person, from similar but different angles. A certain simplicity inasmuch as details are concerned, are part of this. Although a high amount of details adds to the convention of realism, furthers the verisimilitude, no-one actually remembers so much. Construction, and re-interpretation in hindsight is obvious in such stories. Mantel however focuses on just a few details, just a few aspects and problems, and so, in an uncluttered language, in uncluttered rooms, we are closer to the devastation that her time, her education and her fellow Brits wreak on her. There are a handful of themes which the book pursues doggedly, without distractions, without indulgence, yet wrapped in soft and clear English. This kind of writing is supported by the near-allegorical elements. Most of the plot elements do double shifts as tropes or allegories.
It is really difficult not to read everything as being there not because it is remembered as having happened or having been there, but to signify something to the reader. Whole dialogues sometimes have an otherworldly sheen to them. This, however, does not lessen the authentic impression of the book at all, which is a very impressive achievement. These two levels additionally, implicitly, address a certain androcentric bias in Bildungsroman literature and in the tropes surrounding the genre. One of the ways that the book does that is by developing one of is characters consistently as a villain. One of the girls is odd, mean, and growing fatter each year. She’s zaftig but stingy. One memorable scene has her scarfing noodles without even adding butter, all the while growling at her best friend. We should empathize with her: she helped the protagonist now and then in school, she takes care of her mother, and because of her dialect and her foreign looks, as well as because of her increasing girth, she’s an outcast. At the same time, the book does not want or allow us to do that, pushing the stereotypical villainous description. She is both a person we should like, as far as the authentic, realistic level is concerned, but one we don’t like, almost as a direct result of the literarily heightened structure and the way her character is related to us, the audience. That girl does something terrible at the end, but in a moving, and hard twist at the end, we are not allowed to single her out for derision. “This is where we went wrong”, the narrator says, in the frame narrative, a “we” that includes all the women of her generation. And the illness, the problem, the great plague that the narrator sees as emerging from that period is not villainous meanness, or any act of individual violence, but “Slimmer’s Disease”, anorexia, an disorder that Carmel herself suffers from during her university days. This juxtaposition of a complex analysis of what’s wrong with her generation, and a subtle use of tropes usually used in androcentric narratives reinforces the problematic at the heart of the novel: the pressures of becoming a woman in modern Britain, and the difficulties of writing authoritatively about it. These pressures can, again, be divided two ways: class issues, and issues concerning the female body. Easiest to discuss is probably class.
Carmel hails from Lancashire, up north. When she enters university in 1970, Lancastershire is the most populous British district, and one closely associated with working class values, and an industrial landscape. Before a reform in 1974, both Manchester and Liverpool were part of Lancashire, and going south means escaping all that, building a better future for yourself. Carmel’s mother tries to make her daughter apply for Oxbridge, but Carmel eventually goes to a college in London. Be that as it may, it is still respectable, and still a way out of the same old, same old. Additionally, this is a time on the brink. In 1970, a Tory prime minister was elected (Carmel says “It wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t old enough to vote.”), and the Tory party runs on a platform that will eventually turn into Thatcherism. Thatcher wasn’t elected until 1979, but the roots of her politics can be found in the years covered by An Experiment in Love. Mantel, without lapsing into complaints, does an excellent job in detailing how poor and affluent families are part of different cultures and of the pressures at work in each of them. Ultimately though, all the women are on equal footing as far as their bodies are concerned. Although love plays a role in the book, bodies play a larger role by far. Bodies, that is, not in a general way, but specifically bodies as they come into play at the crossroads of experience. Among the two most central experiences involving bodies are pregnancy and hunger. Hunger is, of course, also hunger for success, hunger for public recognition, but hunger here is also the self-imposed hunger that self-consciousness and stress can effect. In the discussion of the Slimmer’s Disease that begins and ends the book, hunger is further elevated to the status of a general problem. It ties into the class problem, of course, since for Carmel, food competes with clothes and train tickets and is not taken for granted. But it’s also a matter of self-preservation, a sign of self-respect, and it directly corresponds to how the world reacts to you. The people in the novel can be arranged to how they feed their bodies, how they react to hunger. Bodies, without Mantel having to stoop to preaching, or obsessing, are a battleground here, and appearances are key, oddly enough for a novel in a tradition that emphasized interiority.
But interiority is most easy to achieve for the unmarked, and confirms structures and strictures at work in society, interiority, for all the seductiveness it can bring, is often deaf to the din of other voices, other people, other minds. Hilary Mantel isn’t, and An Experiment in Love is a wonderfully open, important, tough book. There are far more aspects to it than I was able to mention, as for example its treatment of politics (with traces of Doris Lessing’s reminiscences) and of religion, as well as of issues like marriage, knowledge and learning. Mantel is a grand writer, who is able to expertly manipulate both private and public registers, a craftsman in full control of her craft, and a dear, moving novelist, to boot. Read this book.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)