Maryse Condé: En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux

Condé, Maryse (2010), En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux, JCLattès
ISBN 978-2-7096-3321-5

DSC_1546So, this feels a bit odd. En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the first novel I have read by Maryse Condé. Condé is, incidentally, nominated for the Man Booker International 2015, an award given not to an individual novel but to a whole oeuvre. She is nominated for having this large and influential oeuvre dealing with the African diaspora, questions of race, the Black Atlantic, history and feminism. I don’t think she should win it, but that’s largely due to the fact that Marlene Van Niekerk, László Krasznahorkai and Ibrahim al-Koni are also nominated, three absolutely brilliant novelists. I will say this: I can’t really comment on the broader oeuvre of Ms. Condé, because En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the only one of her books I have read cover to cover so far. It is not, let me say this outright, the best option if you want an introduction to Condé. From what I read so far, that option would be Moi, Titouba, Sorcière or you could jump right into the deep end and read her two volume historical chef d’oeuvre Segou. Lucky for you, these earlier books have all been translated into English already. She appears to be quite generously translated, overall, unlike last year’s Nobel winner Modiano (read my take on his work here), where publishers have been trying to catch up with the sudden rise in importance, interest and significance all year. So, given that this book is not the best place to start, you should take some of my broader assessment with a grain of salt. I will admit, I was not bowled over by Condé’s novel. It’s not awful, but surely awful is not what we’re shooting for with a novelist who keeps getting nominated for major awards. Much of what’s interesting about the book is structural or intellectual. The prose is nothing to write home about. I understand that the task before the novelist here was frequently to render the speech and tale of badly educated Creole and Antillean individuals into writing, but surely that could have been achieved more interestingly. There is an odd sense of disengagement between the author and her subject – odd because so much of Condé’s work in general retraces elements of her identity, asking questions that pertain directly to her personal identity. And yet, despite all this, it’s still an engaging read, the characters still come alive, and the ideas and political convictions sparke. Condé herself considers this the dark final chapter of her Segou books, but its effect is measured. Read it.

conde seguIn keeping with my earlier warning about the book and its place at the end of a long career in writing, here is one more caveat. The book’s characters have turned up here and there in other works and in the richness of its stories Condé also re-uses ideas from earlier novels. It’s not quite like reviewing Roth’s Exit Ghost without reference to Roth’s earlier Zuckerman books, but I’m sure there’s a gap between my understanding of the novel and that of an expert reader of Condé’s work. That said, there’s no obvious lacunae in the text or inexplicable artifacts demanding to be contextualized with older books. It wasn’t until I came across an interview with Condé that this connection was pointed out to me. I actually think the book’s structure might work better if you don’t know the backstory of Babakar and his mother Thècla, but I say this in ignorance of vast swathes of her work, especially Segou. This impression of mine is due to the way the book deals with history. All major characters introduced to us tell us their story in their own words. They get dedicated chapters, called “The story of X,” and this includes a chapter on Babakar. Additionally, the story briefly, in its most entertaining section, sketches the history of Babakar’s family, including his mother Thècla who is long dead when the story starts. That very brief sketch of the family history is deft and fun. It offers a magic realist take on a tale of the Middle Passage, only to allow the rest of the novel to mostly drop the magic realism in exchange for what’s probably best referred to as melodramatic/postcolonial realism. Yet that seed allows the novel to use a ghost as a literary device, commentator and cruel conscience, but also seeds all the realism with an implicit abyss of wonder. Throughout her life and in various interviews, Condé has always expressed skepticism towards terms like the “francophonie”, “négritude” and the like, a bit like Derek Walcott, who resisted the latter term as well. She does quite a bit of legwork in this novel to express both some concepts that are covered by the terms, concepts of history and community, without subscribing to some of the pathos they come from. The mild, deeply seeded magic realism here serves as a kind of emotional underpinning. Whereas Segou is dedicated to her “Bambara ancestress,” and ends with a note of thanks to various African scholars, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux stands alone.

DSC_1548Orality is a central element of the book, without a supervising narrative that smooths everything in. We do get an omniscient narrator, but the facts told us in the oral narratives are never adjusted, discussed or corrected, even when they come from people that we have come to believe to be untrustworthy. There is, after all, a strong connection of the literature of the Antilles to orality. As Condé writes in her short treatise on Aimé Césaire (1978), the Créole of the Antilles developed to allow the slaves, imported from various parts of Africa, a common language. It is, according to Condé, a case of diglossia, not bilingualism – one is a dialect recognized to have a low social status, and one meant to be used in ‘proper’ speech and writing. The simplicity of Condé’s French, one feels now and then, is meant to reproduce that simple, low octane, low register speech for a kind of authenticity. At the same time, the convoluted structure of the book, which deploys narratives as it sees fit, juggles time, memory and events in a complex pattern, appears to counteract that linguistic strategy. Similarly, Condé offers us occasional Creole phrases. She never translates them, leaving us to guess, but she also uses very few of them in the speech of individuals who you’d expect to use more of them. These structural contradictions are not unexpected in Condé’s work who has consistently resisted easy readings, and who, intellectually, must be read carefully, in order to not trip over one of her many lines of connection and thought. One rather notorious example of this kind of ‘tripping’ is an essay by Anne-Marie Jeay called “Segou, les murailles de terre: Lecture anthropologique d’un roman.” It’s not long, but a deeply fascinating attack on Condé. The main issue, and one that the essay gets most quoted for, is a suggestion of both orientalism (and even racism), and of plagiarism. Both issues are connected to Condé’s use of historians’ works on the history of Mali. Jeay lists them triumphantly and demonstrates to what extent these texts have been borrowed, and, in a second step, how racist and offensive these texts are in the first place. It’s a spectacular misreading (my own reading of it owes much to Cilas Kemedjio’s excellent book on Condé and Glissant) of a text that, after all, thanks African scholars in the back, and which uses these scholars of Western academia in order to construct an image of Africa-as-found-in-books, contrasting it with a more deeply felt personal connection and highlighting, too, the disconnection Condé herself feels towards her ancestral home. Salman Rushdie famously wrote that exiles writing about their homelands are creating fictions, in his case “an India of the mind.” So in a way, Ségou is Condé’s ‘Mali of the Mind” and her elaborate web of quotes and references are a way of foregrounding that construction.

condéThis is a disconnection that we also find in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux. Almost all of its central characters are lost far from their home, having to redefine home. The very family story of the novel’s protagonist Babakar, which I mentioned above, is a tale of the Black Atlantic, like many others. It’s laced with a bit of superstition, which in its generational sweep reminded me a bit of Toni Morrison, and recounts to us how Babakar’s ancestor ended up a freed slave on Guadeloupe. It is Babakar’s own mother, the mysterious Thècla who would, for money and adventure, choose to take the trip back to Africa, to become a teacher in Mali. She died, leaving her young son alone in the world, but not all alone. Her specter, heckling, disapproving, would haunt him for the rest of his life (at least as far as we are shown in the book). Babakar, who would become a doctor, spent much of his life in Africa surrounded by tragedy, loss, betrayal and civil war, until he, having lost everything, decided to settle in Guadeloupe, closing the circle. This is, more or less, where the novel begins. In its first pages he delivers a dying woman of a baby girl. In her last moments, the mother, a native from Haiti, asks of Babakar to bring her daughter home to Haiti, which, with the help of the woman’s last lover and his gardener, he eventually does, having practically adopted the child. That’s where the main plot of the novel unravels. The novel’s timeline ends in the 2010 earthquake, fairly open ended, which I think I can say without spoiling the book. I mean, the book is frequently compelling, but suspense has nothing to do with it. Unlike Ségou, this book doesn’t make the autobiographical connection obvious except through the author’s bio in the back mentioning her Guadeloupe origins. The Mali connection is not written into the book, that one depends on knowing more of Condé’s work. That’s not greatly relevant, however, since the book’s obsession with home and travel, with ethnic and cultural heritage and contemporary politics is obvious throughout. As a side note let me add that this is true for 99% of reviews/studies obsessing over authorial intention. Usually, if you read any text closely, its central concerns are fairly clear without knowing the author’s biography, which is likely to be more distraction than help anyway.

reading conde

Excuse the narcissism. This is me reading the book around Easter 2015.

That said, I would like to return to some of Condé’s critical writing, especially that nifty little book on Césaire. Throughout her career, Condé has resisted easy categorizations, from being considered a writer of the francophonie to concepts in postcolonial studies like négritude. The latter, for example, is derided by Condé as creating a fictional image of black people that’s merely a reaction to Western ideals, an anti-western description, dependent on and already colonized by the West. The only aspect she allows for is the capacity to survive a great deal of suffering: “Un diction antillais did: ‘An nèg pa ka jin mo.’ En français, ‘un nègre ne meurt jamais.’” In a way, Babakar’s odyssee in En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux through pain and loss and his almost miraculous survival of it all is a literary reflection of that positive aspect of négritude. I may be ambivalent about her skills as a novelist, but her extraordinary resistance to easy concepts is impressive, even if it has caused a bit of a backlash, as Walcott’s decision to write in high register English has for some critics. An obvious starting point here is the novel’s insistence that Guadeloupe, not being an independent nation, but a DOM. People from Guadeloupe, according to the novel, and according to interviews given by Condé afterward, don’t have a country, they are homeless. They can say “Guadeloupe is my country” but that’s a sentimental rather than factual comment. In an interview with Francoise Simasotchi-Bronès, she even compares them to Romani, nomads, hated in the countries they live in, and the countries they travel to. There is an odd echo of that position in that essay by Anne-Marie Jeay I mentioned before, where she refers to Condé as being “black but Guadeloupian” (“noire mais guadeloupéenne”) – an inauthentic person to write about Africa, tainted by living in a French dependency. And yet, for DOM writers, France is not an easy place to call home. According to Bill Ashcroft, people and places are “transformed by diasporas” – and in many ways, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux dramatizes that transformation, by offering us multiple diasporas and showing us people disconnected from ancestral homelands, people changing in exile, people desperate to forge a link with home. For Babakar, that link is reified in the ghost of his mother Thècla, but most people are not so lucky. In the end, we learn, there is no real homeland for anyone, there are only the homes that we make for ourselves, the homes we create. Sometimes because we want to live there, sometimes because we have to make do, sometimes because of a duty.

DSC_1549This is even true for Condé. Intentionally or not, En Attendant La Montée Des Eaux is the novel of a writer who has lived away from Guadeloupe for a long time. It’s not just her harsh criticism of the idea of Guadeloupe being a country. There are quite a few artefacts throughout the book that are odd. One of the most remarkable ones comes during Babakar’s story of his life in war torn Mali. As he returns to a town he lived for years in, only to see it having been utterly destroyed by war and strife, mostly obliterated, the author has Babakar remark: “On aurait dit que pareil à la Nouvelle-Orléans, l’ouragan Katrina l’avait ravagée.” It’s very odd, you have to admit, to have the #1 association, when finding a city destroyed by war, to say that it looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I think I would be excused to say that this doesn’t sound like Mali citizen Babakar recounting his country’s destruction and more like Maryse Condé, writer who taught for years at Columbia in New York. The decentered condition that hovers over most of the book and that has been theorized by Jacques Chevrier as “migritude” appears to also include the writer Maryse Condé. And ultimately, despite all the book’s literary shortcomings, especially as far as the prose is concerned, that’s what’s most compelling about it: it’s a book that wrestles with “migritude” on many levels, that keeps pushing ideas and narratives to center stage, including its own author’s biases. The lack of resolution, really, reflects the fluid and complex nature of the phenomenon. It’s a deeply unhappy book, but it doesn’t go for a Coetzee-style darkness. It doesn’t go for visceral brutality, it goes for inconclusive confusion. And that’s a good thing.

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Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[…].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.

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On hopes, disappointments and surprises: recent books by Günter Grass and Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie and Günter Grass, two of my favorite living writers, have both published new books recently. Both writers have a mixed track record of late. Rushdie took a downward turn with The Ground Beneath Her Feet and hit literary rock bottom with the astonishingly bad Fury. He regained some ground since, with the mixed but good Shalimar the Clown. It wasn’t all good, in retrospect there were many problems with it but I for one heaved a big sigh of relief upon reading it. Especially the Kashmir passages were among his very best work, and in the WWII passages I felt he was slowly getting the hang of writing about the west without descending into self-parody.

Grass has started his bad years with Mein Jahrhundert (My Century), which showcased why he shouldn’t write more short prose, but wasn’t as excruciatingly bad as the poetry he published in the following years. Novemberland and Letzte Tänze were bad. Very bad. Embarrassingly bad. Lord knows, Grass was one of the best German post-WWII poets when he started his career, I’d still recommend his debut volume of poetry, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner to anyone who cares for poetry and my opinion. I can’t really explain what happened. He also published a novel that read like a bad parody of himself, Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk).

So I awaited both writers’ new books with hopes and fears. With Grass, admittedly, the hope was solely based on my love for his older work and wasn’t strong enough to make me pay for the hardcover. When I finally bought the paperback of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, some irritating ticks, too much talk of Grass’ penis and too much of a hurry marred the book, but it cohered wonderfully, was a great read and contained much of what I loved and love in Grass’ work. A shifty memoirist, he slips in and out of truth, offers interpretations for his own work by claiming real life counterparts to some of his most famous creatures, including the precocious son of an acquaintance of his, who walks into the living room with his tin drum. Grass relates of his talks with a friend in the army, who was to become Pope Benedikt XVI, he does a good job of discussing Germany’s dark past without providing excuses (but also without being really open about it, more on this soon) and his writing often shines as it did in the old days. It’s the old baroque Grass again, who lays it on too thickly but it feels rarely forced. An inspired book.

Not so The Enchantress of Florence. Well. There are two ways of looking at the book. They are not compatible, but they are both true. According to one it’s easily his best work since The Moor’s last Sigh. No matter how you look at it, it’s not as good as Moor or the Verses, or Shame, or Children, or indeed Haroun, but it bests the rest of his novels. There is some glorious writing and there are few writers out there who can do as much justice to the sumptuousness of the setting of the novel as Rushdie can. Without even having to indulge in long descriptions, it’s there, in his prose. He needs few words to paint a whole, finely detailed, rich world. Days after finishing the Enchantress I had vivid visions of Florence. It made me pull Mandragola and The Prince off shelves and reread them.

There are many strange and great characters, often pained with broad brushstrokes that left an intricate pattern in the novel. The story is straightforward enough told with an enormous pace, actually, but without ever seeming hurried. He seems to have regained his talent for telling a rich story in few words, something which has amazed me ever since Shame (which, at the time, I picked up reluctantly, as any thin book, but which, in retrospect, seems like that house in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it’s bigger inside than outside.)

However, there are, once we invoke the masterpieces of this great writer, some respects in which The Enchantress somewhat short. It’s never as moving, as warm, as his earlier work. People move past you and even though their characterization is superb, the book is still cold. With a writer of Rushdie’s abilities, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had recognized his strengths and crafted a better novel, to the best of his abilities. Unlike Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) this is most certainly not an inspired book, no sir. It’s a supremely well crafted book, but there’s something missing at the heart of it all, although I admit that Rushdie’s language does carry a certain warmth, the warmth of a room hung with thick, rich carpets, in the midst of summer, in a household lonely with cruelty. The child alone in his room basks in the heat, but still shivers, from a different kind of cold.

And this is where we turn to the second point I alluded to before. Rushdie was never a good thinker. Take a peek into one of his volumes of essays and you’ll see what I mean. The best parts of them are inspiring, even thought provoking, but less like real philosophy and more like (at times) good aphorisms. Not that they are aphorisms. If that is confusing, it’s all you’re going to get. Well. Back to Rushdie being a second- or third-rate thinker.

It shows in the new novel which cites and sometimes paraphrases contemporary discussions of that infamous idea of the “Clash of Cultures” and of religion and fundamentalism. Tired, all too well known witticisms, bad arguments that pose in the novel as novel (excuse the pun) ideas, and brilliant and/or daring ones at that. How could Rushdie have read period pieces (it is to be assumed he has read all or most of Macchiavelli’s work, including the luminous work that is the Discourses on Livy) and assumed that his cut&paste method of transplanting weak contemporary arguments into that setting could work at all?

Hence my comparison to Fury. Both are, in their own ways, failed novels of ideas, in both cases because Rushdie hasn’t many good ideas, in the philosophical sense, of his own. It’s not just because Rushdie is channeling the Football Hooligans of Rational Thought, although he is, and it’s not a nice thing to behold. No, this novel immediately takes a nosedive anytime he engages in anything philosophical. It recovers quickly, but I have been known to shout angrily from time to time while reading it. I’m not sure I want to reread it. I’ll try to just remember the great parts and look forward to the new novel, which is, hopefully, emptier of philosophy and fuller of awesome (yes, I use awesome as a noun). ISBN