Sunday, December 16, 2007

J. P. Clark's America

My friend Beverly Nieves and her husband Henry owned a bookstore on St. Thomas for a number of years, and a couple of years ago when she moved she was kind enough to let me have a shelf of volumes from the African Writers Series, the legendary series started with the publication of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in 1962, and that continues to be vital today. Then last year my friend Tony Hunt (the author of a fine book about Gary Snyder, by the way) gave me a box of books from his years in Africa that also included a number of editions from the series. I've been sampling them and find all sorts of delights and curiosities, needless to say.

This week I read J. P. Clark's America, Their America, his account of his year spent in the US on a fellowship to Princeton in 1963, when he was 26 years old (subsequently he published under the name John Pepper Clark). Mr. Clark is a Nigerian educated at the University of Ibadan, who worked in the information Ministry of that country and as a journalist, and is well-regarded today principally for his poetry. The present book is not a work of fiction but an account of his impressions and experiences as he visits the US for the first time and, through his fellowship, meets many people in the highest walks of government, journalism and the theater (another of his own specialties).

I found this book quite challenging. At first it was too easy for me to patronize him as the stereotypical angry young black man. He was on a mission to defy the generosity of his hosts, to reject America before it rejected him, to prove to everyone (but especially to himself) that he, the young radical, saw through the smug hypocrisy of provincial America. He throws the most innocent conversation-starters back in people's faces, and repeatedly reports to the reader the ensuing uncomfortable silence, and the fact that he never spoke to so-and-so again. He is the poetry slammer on a mission to shock, the tedious anti-American who imagines that no one has heard these criticisms before.

As I stuck with him, though, he gradually won me over, and that process of getting to know this difficult person through the medium of his journal turned out to be the pleasure of the book. He is in fact learned and worldly, quoting Pound's Cantos from memory, making easy classical allusions, critiquing productions of Bertold Brecht. More than that, he turns out to be a serious student of the US, following Brooks Atkinson's column, up on the Supreme Court more than most Americans, more familiar with New York geography than I am who grew up in Rochester: he is not just some angry victim of culture shock, as he must have seemed to many of the people he encountered. He has made a serious intellectual investment in understanding the United States.

Then there is the historical context of Cold War America circa 1963. The Parvin Fellowship he has been awarded is transparently a propaganda arm of government policy, but then so is virtually every international initiative of the government. The Kennedy brothers sit astride Washington, the Democratic Party leads the struggle against the "Reds" with liberals as the chorus. It is the time of the Cuban Missile crisis, and Clark's observation that the US has the USSR ringed with missiles is decidedly unwelcome. Most of the people Clark meets ask him leading questions that invite him to recite to them how wonderful America is, and much of his rejection is because he refuses to perform. The US in 1963 does not appear to this educated Nigerian to be much different from South Africa, and it isn't that much different, something we Americans conveniently forget. His friendly guide tells him about all of the things that "we" are doing for "the blacks," who are being concentrated into apartment towers through "urban renewal." From his perspective in 1963, the civil rights movement looks like something that is just taking off; he's aware of it, and hopeful about it (he wants people to learn to fight for themselves), but barely mentions it.

A substantial point of Clark's is that the American concept of foreign aid is classically imperial: the idea is that everyone ought to be civilized through assimilation and absorption into American ways. He has a perceptive discussion of the drawbacks of bringing Africans to the US for their education, at the expense of developing higher education back home. His anger is unavoidable as no one will appreciate him for his African self, they only appreciate him when he "assimilates." What is remarkable is how true this rings today, 44 years later, both in terms of how Americans view foreigners, especially "Third World" foreigners, and in terms of the emotional challenges confronting African-Americans who are moving into professional communities (something that I see as a university professor).

And then there is "J. P." himself. After a while one comes to see that his style is a kind of humorous sarcasm that aims at everything and everyone. He is forever praising and thanking people, only he insists in doing it in a back-handed way. He is completely even-handed in his treatment of whites, blacks, and people from other parts of the world. Finally booted out of the fellowship and sent packing home, his transgression is that he never attended any classes, which is indeed grounds for washing out, but equally obvious is the fact that he has alienated the Cold Warrior administrators and their auxiliary society hostesses, now angry at this ingrate African. One is glad to find, on researching him a little more, that he subsequently returned to the US as a speaker and a teacher some number of times. He's the kind of visitor that we could use more often.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Patrick White's Eye of the Storm

I was looking over the list of past winners of the Nobel Prize, looking for someone with whom I was not familiar, and sure enough there was Patrick White, winner in 1973, and an Australian no less. So I got a copy of his 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm and put it in the Stack. I had no idea what to expect, maybe a mental image of Russell Crowe brandishing a cutlass on the deck of a frigate.

But White's work is nothing like that. His terrain is the nature of consciousness, a subject that he approaches in a most painterly way, working always on a presentation of people's thoughts and impressions that he does indeed do outstandingly well. This is not so much about precision as it is about creativity, although his ability to inhabit multiple and disparate characters does require a very fine eye and ear. It struck me that he chose an unpromising subject, that of an elderly woman in the last days of her life and the people around her, her three nurses, her housekeeper, her solicitor, and her two adult children. Painterly, as I said: this is a rendering of a scene, the elements of which are the interior lives of the people in it. It is not "social commentary" but it is "personal commentary" if you will, critical of humanity but at a very personal level, like a caricaturist, Hogarth or Goya, say.

Elizabeth Hunter was the beautiful, cruel, promiscuous wife of a rich and famous man, the star of a thousand boozy parties, the seductress of politicians, artists, and friends' husbands. Now in her eighties she lies invalid and blind in her big house, lording over her staff of nurses who tend to her round the clock. The reader is not put into the mind of Elizabeth Hunter, but rather into the minds of those around her, particularly her two children, Basil, a successful stage actor in England, and Dorothy, the divorced wife of a French nobleman who now lives on her own in not-rich circumstances in Paris, and Flora Manhood, the young and pretty nurse from the wrong side of the tracks.

The focus is microscopic: how someone feels walking up a flagstone path, what one thinks of encountering old colleagues in a bar, how one reacts to someone else's apparently predatory children, the effect of the smell of porkchops on entering an estranged boyfriend's apartment. The language reels out into impressionistic passages and then coils back into precision, like jazz music leaving and returning to the beat, the narration passing from one mind to another but never into omniscience.

It is a big novel, 589 pages, but length here is equivalent to a big canvas and little more. He has quite a few other novels, from reading about them I think I'll get around to The Twyborn Affair (1979), which was shortlisted for the Booker before, so the story goes, White withdrew it to make way for younger writers. He has several novels set in the Australian outback which would be more up my usual alley, The Tree of Man (1956) was a breakthrough novel for him and Voss (1957) sounds like it might be a fun Herzogian (as in Werner) trek to madness and oblivion (and what could be funner than that?).

It's a tribute to White's originality that there are no obvious comparisons, at least that occur to me, among his contemporaries. Obviously he is impossible without Modernism, Freud, Henry James, Faulkner, etc. I'm glad to have discovered him - lists are good!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

McCabe's Butcher Boy

Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy, Dell 1992. This is an excellent novel on a number of levels. It is told entirely from the point of view of a psychopathic adolescent, Francie, who eventually, and inevitably, commits a murder. The demands on a writer of this sort of project are intense. A great ear for language, sustained creative effort, and great humanity all have to come together from the first page to the last. A structuring element is Francie's obsession with a neighbor boy who has been the only one he could ever call his friend. This boy is privileged (sent off to private school) and sane (with no real emotional connection to Francie on his own part). Early in the novel Francie goes into the boy's home and dresses up in his school clothes, an episode that ends with Francie pushing the boy's mother to the floor. There is a fine quality of dread as the reader is carried down the current of a story that can only end horribly. Like all great misanthropic novels, this one keeps the reader/victim alive with delicious black humor.

The humor serves other purposes as well. It forces us to view things with a certain dispassion, and that opens up a wider angle of view of the subject matter. Readers of this blog know that my experience of Irish literature is historical, political, and social, in addition to my love of the Irish love of language. Maybe Patrick McCabe just wanted to perform this exercise and thrill us all with his virtuosity (like the young man dressed up like James Joyce you can find in any bar on the island).

But the allegorical possibilities here are too obvious to ignore. Francie's job with the butcher, found for him after he washes out of grade school, is the lowest of the low, cleaning up and disposing of viscera after making his deliveries. He insists that the boy unfortunate enough to come from where he comes from remember him, even going to the boarding school, where the boy and his real friend find him as amusing as threatening. He forms a hatred of the mother of the prosperous and functioning boy, certain that it is she who looks down on him (who doesn't?) and rejects him. After he is sent away he is abused by a priest at the institution, a kind of treatment that this poor soul takes for granted as his lot, which indeed it is. All of this gets right to the heart of the Irish condition. The oppressed cannot embrace legitimacy and prosperity without losing a more ancient dignity. Still I can feel the spirit of Beckett mocking me for my bourgeois reduction of this tragicomedy: that's McCabe's achievement.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer

I've just read Charles McGrath's obituary of Norman Mailer in today's NYT. I was just talking to an old friend about Mailer the other day, as it happened. He was one of those culturally important figures who bridged the beatnik 50s and the hippy 60s, established as an old provocateur before the "cultural revolution" began. He was also a genuine original, a free-standing, self-created artist and gonzo celebrity identified not with fellow travellers but with the people he got into fights with. I didn't keep up with him after working through his early writings as a teenager. I can tell you that The Executioner's Song (1979), his treatment of Gary Gilmore, has an excellent reputation, and so also for Ancient Evenings, his excursion into Egyptology. I've read The Naked and the Dead (1948), an excellent, straightforward combat novel, The Deer Park (1953), An American Dream (1965), which will live forever as a canonical "Sixties" novel, but The Armies of the Night (1968), his account of a massive antiwar march on the Pentagon in 1967, is the book that I most associate with Mailer. It is miles beyond gonzo journalism before gonzo journalism was invented. He is a pump of words, swamping the reader's mind with the torrent of his own subjectivity, a visceral writer who is completely present at all times. The Pentagon something collection of papers, maybe another selection of papers, Why are We in Vietnam?, The Prisoner of Sex, and maybe one or two other things (Advertisements for Myself). I read Tough Guys Don't Dance because my friends and I used to go bicycle camping out to Truro on Cape Cod, a nice "entertainment" as Graham Greene would call it. I remember reading Mailer on boxing, I was comparing his boxing writings to Hemingway's bullfighting writings (Death in the Afternoon) as part of a high school paper.
My idea was to match up The Sun Also Rises to The Deer Park (partially on the strength, maybe, of cover art on my paperback copy of The Deer Park which made it look like a racy book about adulterous hipsters, which it isn't especially), A Farewell To Arms with The Naked and the Dead, and For Whom the Bell Tolls with The Armies of the Night as I recall, who knows why? Both political. Anyway the idea was a big parallel comparison for my Hemingway class term paper, which turned out to be a good choice since the teacher had written his Master's thesis on Mailer, as it turned out.
Somewhere I read the 50s-60s described as the golden age of the Jewish-American writer, it's fair to connect Mailer with Philip Roth's subversive spirit and self-revelation, and Joseph Heller (not sure, is Heller Jewish?) is an obvious co-generational. Saul Bellow is fixated on the outsider protagonist like Mailer. I imagine Alan Ginsburg would smile at the suggestion that he belonged in the category with Mailer, but I'm not sure he would disagree. Of course Ginsburg, like Mailer, is just as identifiable as a 50s-60s crossover figure and 60s icon, so one doesn't place them only as "Jewish" writers, whatever that means. They are also what we call "Sixties" writers.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Carey's Ned Kelly

Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang, 2000. This Booker Prize winner is about the real-life outlaw Ned Kelly, a Jesse James of the outback of Victoria, Australia in the late 19th century. It is full of action and contains fine passages set in the wilderness. Both the vernacular speech and the inner monologue of the title character are excellently done. The Irish identity of Kelly and his family, and the economic and legal injustices to which poor "transported" Irish were subjected by the colonial authorities, are among the real subjects of the book. Ned is a stubborn enough force of nature to hold our sympathy without heroics. Carey's Australian contribution to the outlaw genre is an instant classic.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Plunkett's Strumpet City

James Plunkett, Strumpet City (1969) This is Plunkett's biggest and most ambitious work and generally regarded as his masterpiece. It is a novel of social realism with obvious debts to Dickens and Balzac. A large cast of characters live out personal and social dramas during the vicious dockside labor wars in Dublin from 1907 to 1914, important stage-setting for the subsequent war for independence. Try reading this one first and then reading Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry.

Meanwhile Strumpett's book caricatures the three priests of a poor parish, three working men on the front lines of the strikes and lockouts and their women and families, a rich but worldly and liberal-minded owner and his less enlightened tenement-owning friends, two destitute men who beg in the streets and others (the characters weave in and out of each others' lives). The title character, of course, is Dublin itself, a shocking strumpet of a city where all the foibles of human nature are laid bare for all the world to see. This is a big novel, 549 pages, but if you like to read progressive, historical novels of social realism then you'll enjoy Strumpet City.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life of Dampier

Diana and Mitchell Preston, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, Walker, 2004. William Dampier was an English explorer and naturalist, the first Englishman to explore Australia and the first to circumnavigate the world three times. He was one of the most important scientists of the European exploration and colonization of the world in the 17th and 18th centuries, studying tides, ocean currents, tropical storms, and cartography with such precision that his work was still in use as basic reference more than a century after his death in 1715. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin are among those who acknowledged his influence on them, largely through accounts of his voyages published at the end of the 17th century. A biography of Dampier is thus long overdue. However, in addition to his importance to science and literature, Dampier also lived a fantastic life of adventure. He did not ship out as a scientist, commissioned to conduct research, but rather joined up with buccaneer crews as a young man in the West Indies during the days of piracy along the Spanish Main. His reputation as perhaps the greatest navigator of his day was based on his part in notorious and illegal raids against the Spanish in the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as on later and more legitimate accomplishments. Land crossings of the Central American isthmus, shipwrecks, naval battles, mutinees, midnight raids, disease and starvation, often violent encounters with strange tribes, unknown animals (the pirates hid out on the Galapagos), and hurricanes were his lot on his first, twelve-year long circumnavigation, while Dampier all the while carefully preserved his charts and records in a sealed bamboo tube, often while running for his life from one calamity or another. The Prestons do an excellent job of bringing all of this to life, with very good period illustrations and solid notes. A must for anyone interested in the Age of Exploration.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Fools of Fortune

William Trevor, Fools of Fortune, Penguin (1983). William Trevor is known best as a short story writer, and in this short novel one can see the influence of the shorter form. Large events are compressed into paragraphs, transitions are executed in a sentence or two that would take other writers pages to lay out. The writing is excellent, the story very sad. We are in Troubles territory, here in County Cork, where a Protestant mill owner runs afoul of the Black and Tans when an informer is murdered on his property. Two generations of Englishwomen have married into this Irish family, and some around them understand that this is one root of inevitable tragedy. After the killings of his father and two sisters, Willie grows up while his mother slides into alcoholic resentment. After her suicide he gives up his own future in favor of vengeance, in turn maiming the lives of his true love and their daughter. Resentment, vengeance and vendetta are the subjects, illustrating the costs of endless English depredations of the Irish. In the middle of this very dark novel there is a pricelessly funny interlude of classic boys' school shenanigans, one of Trevor's stories dropped in to relieve the weary reader. Highly recommended, and a great introduction to Trevor, his style and his range can be appreciated here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lightman's Dreams

Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams, 2004. Lightman is a physicist who has written these short meditations on conceptually-possible variations on time. Time might be slower at a lower altitude, or it might be different from one place to the next, or faster at some center and slower far away, and so forth. Vignettes are presented, mostly taking place in the German-speaking world of Einstein's early life (and, one can't help sensing, location of many a well-appreciated sojourn for Prof. Lightman himself). There's really good food as we sit at big wooden tables overlooking the river near the somethingstrasse, it's nice just to be there. Not much actually happens, maybe that's part of the joke, although it's frequently poignant as relatives and lovers lose each other in time and so forth, which grabs you a bit. All in all I enjoyed it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Wreath for Udomo

Peter Abrahams, A Wreath for Udomo, Faber and Faber, 1956. Abrahams takes the reader to places that few authors could. It is a story about African revolutionaries in the idealistic years after WWII, first in exile in London and later struggling and in power in fictional African countries. It is not a war novel (the account of the jungle is notably naive), rather it deals with the intersection of politics, culture and society. These men are essentially intellectuals, inevitably transformed by their exposure to Europe (and de rigour relations with white women) and some of them are able to connect to populist elements back home, others not. There is the old lion whose time has past, there is the idealist whose character does not pass the severe tests to which it is subjected. It is similar to John Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am in treating with educated, sophisticated characters at a time when most black literature was preoccupied with tribals (in Africa; e.g., Amos Tutuola) and the street (in the USA; e.g., Ishmael Reed).

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Known World

Edward P. Jones, The Known World, HarperCollins, 2003. Using recent scholarship on census data and other 19th century sources, Jones tells an extraordinary story of daughters owning mothers, brothers owning brothers, black slave owners, illegal slave trading and many other aspects of life under slavery that have hitherto been unappreciated. He shows how the institution of slavery corrupted everyone who lived with it, black, white, or otherwise. We are still working through the national issue of slavery. Now we are seeing a great wave of African-American literature, and Toni Morrison, Maryse Conde, and Edwin P. Jones are all tremendous examples.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan (Randon House, 2006). Ada meets Da Ali G Show. The wicked command of both English prose and American ways owes much to Nabakov, and the unforgiving rage at Soviet injustice and exasperated love for dumbed-down American pop culture are Nabakovian as well. Here hip-hop, or should I say the raunchier precincts of gangsta rap, stands in for everything that is swallowed whole, without regard for consequences, from the West by the East. Misha Vainberg is a modern version of Tolstoy's Pierre Bezukhov, so rich and cosmopolitan that he is the last man to understand that the war, and the country, have been lost. The ghost of Mikhail Bulgakov also haunts these pages, where not only chaos but also phantasmagoria constantly threaten to erupt. In the end the most damning indictment is of the rapine of the former Soviet Republics after the collapse of the USSR; this comic writer has written perhaps the ultimate Halliburton novel.

Friday, May 11, 2007

McGahern's Amongst Women

John McGahern, Amongst Women, 1990 (Penguin). A very well-written short novel that I read because it won the Irish Times Literary Award. Michael Moran is a former IRA soldier (a long-ago guerrilla, not a hard man of the North) who feels bitter and alienated in modern Ireland. He is a highly conceptualized, allegorical figure, standing in for a certain part of Ireland itself. He is emotionally austere and estranged from his oldest son, but far from a monster, capable of warmth and very loyal but committed to a minimalist lifestyle that reflects a history of poverty even as prosperity slowly blossoms around him. His Catholic faith is his staff and a matriline of women is his world. His sin is pride, that shuts him off from almost the entire world outside of his family. A deep theme in Irish literature is displacement, the presence of incongruous elements in the Irish character, vestiges of another world, another Irish reality, that is felt more than understood. This novel is a near-perfect crystallization of that theme. Compare this one to Aidan Higgins's Langrishe, Go Down (1966); Catholic and Protestant versions of the Irish eulogy.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84, was very important to me in my school years, in the 1970s. I started reading science fiction at a young age, and Vonnegut was there, a bridge to lead me from genre fiction to the world of ideas. He was a satirist, an ironist, a writer eager to stare down the pitiless reality of life and death, but he was also funny (I might have prized that most at the age of, say, 14), and he took it as a moral imperative not to take himself too seriously. To this day there is no critical consensus as to his literary stature. As a creator of worlds he was very ambitious, but he didn't experiment with prose style or narrative form the way "literary" writers often do. He was comfortable with his instrument, a dead-pan delivery full of quick changes. He reminds me of Russian writers, Gogol with his noses on the moon, and Eastern Europeans, Kafka and Kundera: a fabulist of outrage. Slaughterhouse Five is his masterpiece, and I also recommend the movie version on its own terms (I don't know who directed). For myself, Cat's Cradle was always the definitive Vonnegut, whimsically portraying the human-caused end of the world as part of some cosmic joke, but not too big a joke. The Sirens of Titan is underrated I think, further exploring the possibility that we might become unmoored from our planet of origin (as Vonnegut was during the fire-bombing of Dresden). His first novel, Player Piano, contains the themes that he developed over many subsequent books, and stands as a good novel on its own. A 70s story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, holds its own with the novels. Later I moved on, I remember being disappointed with Breakfast of Champions, finding the ironic glibness now cloying, and it's true that his range was not endlessly wide. But Douglas Adams, cyberpunk, the films of Terry Gilliam: none of that would have been done the way it was without Vonnegut. I don't know that he's a "great writer," whatever that is, but as a cultural influence he was an important, blackly funny, ultimately humane voice.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Richard Yates's Almost Forgotten Classic

If you mention Richard Yates's 1961 novel Revolutionary Road (Little, Brown; reissued by Vintage Contemporaries), a whole lot of people never heard of it. That's too bad, because this is a novel that belongs on any list of classic statements of the 1950s and 1960s. The author creates a world that is at once complete artifice and too close to reality. It is at times almost unbearable, in the sense lauded by Kafka: "We should read only those books which wound and stab us." A young couple are entering their thirties and they are unhappy, maybe they're neurotic, certainly April had a terrible childhood, maybe they're trapped by "the system," certainly we are in the familiar American landscape of morally compromised and unfulfilled suburbia. Frank had dreams of...what, exactly? He didn't want to be just another person. He wanted to be "authentic," and he is filled with contempt for his employers, his neighbors, his country. They dream of moving to France with their two children, where Frank (a combat veteran of the war in Europe) can "find himself." Admirable iconoclasts, or merely narcissistic? Frank retreats on this, derailing the plans of April, who really means to do it: to drop out. Is he a moral coward or a decent man? Does he grow up or lose himself? The presence of a "crazy" person, the adult son of the neighbor/realtor, represents a certain interpretive alternative. He thinks he knows a sellout when he sees one and says so after Frank tells him that the Europe plan is off. His mortified parents take him back to the institution, and gradually taper off their visits to him there. Is this the thesis of R.D. Laing, that being "crazy" is just not being integrated into convention? He certainly recognizes April as a compatriot, as a "real female" as he says. One is reminded of the wonderful shyster Tamkin of Bellow's Seize the Day, only here it is the author himself who we're unsure of. What's he mean by all this? There is the irresistible entropy of Heller's Something Happened, the sad juxtaposition of formal dreams and human reality of Salter's Light Years , the terrible trauma underneath "normal" behavior of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. It's possible, but only just, to read the novel as black comedy. I'm a pretty tough reader I think, but I wasn't laughing. It occurred to me that there is a kind of "curse of the Beats" here, thinking more of the legendary failures of Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac to have marriages and homes than the overt marginalization of Burroughs or Ginsberg. Alcoholism might be a puppeteer. The genius of the novel is that we don't ever really know who or what the demonic puppeteer is, but someone or something is pulling the strings of these characters, so convincing and yet so obviously caricatures. And so we come back to the author. What's he up to? Something deadly serious: this is a novel with the moral ambition of Ivan Illych.

Monday, February 12, 2007

How Faulkner Looks Today

An aquaintance was dismissive about Faulkner. Seems he'd sat down to reread The Sound and the Fury and had found it dramatic and obvious. "For kids," he said. It's true that I couldn't see slowly trolling through four or five of the novels like I did when I discovered him as a teenager. But it occurs to me that a reader today would simply look through what at the time was most significant about Faulkner. Internal monologues, polymorphus grammar, shifting points of view; if I'm talking about Modernism in early 20th century literature, in my class it's James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, the James brothers, and William Faulkner is next. Not too far down the list. But my friend has probably read hundreds of novels written since then that simply take these narrative mechanisms for granted, and thus he focussed on the crazy Gothic people living in the ruins of the once classy world now torched, which subject matter in Faulkner is rich but to taste. The truly influential writer erases himself.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Galeano's Masterpiece Inspires an Irish Delight

One of the most crucial writers for understanding Latin America, and all of the Americas, is the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano. His Venas Abiertas de America Latina (Open Veins of Latin America) is, I think, the essential history of colonial exploitation of the New World. But his masterpiece, a literary as well as an historical milestone, is Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire), a searing review of the injustice, caprice, craziness, but also majesty, magic and drama of the Western Hemisphere from pre-Columbian days through the twentieth century.

It is a work as significant for its form as for its content, as Galeano presents short passages collected from myriad sources to weave an impressionistic collage of events large and small, making connections and stirring intuitions as only the very best literary masters can do. The fact that these passages, paragraphs, stories are for the most part drawn from authentic historical sources draws the reader's amazement and shock beyond the text as literature and outward to the world itself. Only a handful of writers have the erudition and eloquence to transport us the way Memory of Fire does.

The trilogy was composed by Galeano in the 1980s, and nobody really attempted to match it for many years. It was sui generis, until 2005, when along comes Don Akenson's An Irish History of Civilization in two massive volumes, dedicated "To the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh, who should have known better, and in honour of Eduardo Galeano, who certainly does." The collage technique is again deployed to carry us from Biblical times to the twentieth century, and to convey something of the tragic and funny experience of the Irish diaspora. I love Irish history and above all Irish literature, and what is not lost on devotees of the subject is the tremendous weight of melancholy that weighs on the whole terrible Irish experience. Thus the deep, deep sense of humor, evolved as it is to look with clear eyes at a world where men are "straw-dogs." Galeano, Akenson. Now we need the Jewish version.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Real West

Two indispensable books about the American West both have the word "blood" in the title: Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America by Charles Bowden (North Point Press, 1995), and Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage, 1985) by Cormac McCarthy. These are books beyond revisionism, where a moral imperative has seized the writer with a compulsion that seems like it might overrule death itself. We all know, after all, that the North American continent was "settled" by Europeans in a long campaign of murder and rapine, and we all know (don't we?) that the real history of human cruelty is more than anything anyone might imagine. So what does the obsessively unflinching writer have to offer us, if we already know this, if we already can fill in the blanks in the backcountry in our own troubled minds? The obsessive writer can offer us an awful lot. This is the only book I've ever read by McCarthy, although his The Road is in my Stack (of books to be read) and I may go back to the earlier westerns on the strength of his writing. He overwrites by any sane standard, but like Jacques Derrida (hah!) he does it so well that what would be (is) merely silly from a different writer is compelling and persuasive in his hands. He's a poet's novelist, forcing the reader to write down a list of words to follow up, names of scrubby bushes, Latinate adjectives and long-forgotten verbs. I don't care much for violence in literature, and McCarthy is as violent a writer as you're likely to find (one English professor told me he'd sworn McCarthy off once and for all after Blood Meridian). The sadism comes long and hard. But this story, of a bunch of desperadoes on a long trail of pillage and despoilation along the Mexican borderlands in the mid-eighteenth century, is dead-on necessary, hammering home a lesson that we all still do need to learn, about not only the West but above all about the Myth of the West. Which brings me to Mr. Bowden, another subversive with a long list of books and a longer list of grievances. This non-fiction meditation looks not only at the history of violence underneath the history of romance, but also takes us deep into the street life of today, the druggies and smugglers and poor Indians (Eastern readers with delicate sensibilities: out west they call themselves "Indians," mostly) still there, in Tucson and Reno and Pueblo, some still waiting for the USA to pass away and leave them as the Navajo elders prophesied, others marking time to leave this world themselves. An Indian gambler tells Bowden that he can't stand to leave the casino while he has any money left: something more could still happen. Bowden's own obsessions keep him with the rough trade in the oil fields, in the Mexican factory towns, in the merchant marine. Whatever grips him, it won't ever let him walk away. The monster that grips these two endlessly moralistic writers is history. You try to do right in a wrong world until you die. Then you can't to it anymore. And that is life.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lawrence Durrell

It was fifteen years ago or so that I discovered the "Alexandria Quartet," Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, by Lawrence Durrell. I remember luxuriating in my recliner (no pretensions to classiness please!), having some wine and that layered cheese, you know, cheddar with creamy stuff alternating, and listening to Gorecki, it was, and reading these dreamy, worldly, intricate novels, soaking in the atmosphere Durrell creates. Everything here is ambiguous and wonderful, and the love of a lifetime is identical to a city and a moment. The novels are famous as an evocation of Alexandria, but the reader is out on the water, riding across the desert, off to Greece. And in Greece a whole lot more of Mr. Durrell, a former British diplomat, awaits the reader fortunate enough to discover him today. His "Sketches from Diplomatic Life," Esprit de Corps, Stiff Upper Lip, and Suave Qui Peut are a masterpiece of English humor, and I would hope to find people high up in the State Department familiar with them, there must be someone, and that's who I would want to talk to. But my personal favorite, a little book (and none of these are over long), is Reflections on a Marine Venus, a more earnest treatment of diplomatic life in provincial Greece after the war, also very funny to be sure, but packed with insights, historical, political, archeological, classical: one simply couldn't find a better host to visit this forgotten world. There is more, notably the novels Tunc and Nunquam (also published together as The Revolt of Aphrodite) and The Dark Labyrinth. It's striking when someone's life experience and someone's skill as a writer are both so considerable and so well-suited to each other. Compare the optimism of Durrell to the cynicism so common to "travel" writers such as Theroux. Which is more inherently insightful, and makes for better company?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Earl Lovelace's Trinidad

The Dragon Can't Dance, Earl Lovelace, Persea Books 1979. Most writers of fiction have good intentions (not that that's a requirement for good literature!), but good writers are rare, and good writers whose experience of the world equips them to shed some light for the rest of us are rarer still. Earl Lovelace manages to transport us to an urban neighborhood of Port of Spain, Trinidad, where the impoverished residents live tot-to-toe with each other, and with their own thwarted dreams. The persistence of the human struggle to achieve something against the powerlessness of poverty is the theme here, woven into stories of young love and bad decisions, jealous neighbors and provocative new bicycles, and strategies for walking past the tough guys on the corner. Carnival, music and costumes are the vehicles for people stubbornly championing their sense of self-worth. You might not want to walk up Calvary Hill and explore around yourself, and Lovelace does us all a service with this devotional writing, preserving a sense of a hard-to-see world.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Stewart on Spinoza and Leibniz

Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (Norton, 2006). This is a very well-researched intellectual history of two of the so-called Rationalist philosophers of the 17th century, and its success with the public ought to tell publishers a lot about the public appetite for this kind of material. It takes a real talent to popularize this highly abstract subject. This is not a hard-core philosophy book, like reading Stuart Hampshire on Spinoza or Bertrand Russell on Leibniz, but enthusiasts will still enjoy Mr. Stewart's argument that Spinoza was the catalytic philosophical influence on Leibniz, and the thorough review of what is known about these two colorfully contrasting characters. Stewart's repudiation of the old "Rationalist/Empiricist" picture of Early Modern philosophy is right on. He offers a very consistent interpretation of Spinoza that sees him as a full-blown modern physicalist; Chapter 10 merits a careful once or twice through, and is mostly persuasive, as on the impossibility of a personal God or personal immortality on Spinoza's view. My main disagreement with Stewart on Spinoza is that he tends to collapse the mental aspect of things into the physical aspect of things too much. A mental description of a thing is, according to this interpretation, a particular species of physical description. It seems to me that Spinoza is insisting that everything can be understood as having both mental descriptions and physical descriptions, in the context of his metaphysically monist claim that everything is God. I think it is reductive to interpret Spinoza as a physicalist. Another problem is that Stewart doesn't appreciate the importance of modal logic for metaphysics, then and now. Spinoza thought that everything that existed existed necessarily, necessity following from the perfection of God. The idea was that contingency and possibility were illusions of human finitude. The ancients had the same problem from Parmenides to Aristotle, and it wasn't until Frege developed a way to formalize modal operators in the 19th century that logic could truly be said to represent the real world of accidents, contingencies and probabilities. But Leibniz anticipated all of this: he saw that God could still be seen as making a willful (and thus moral) decision in the creation of the world if God chose among possible worlds. Stewart conveys this well, making it the more surprising that he doesn't see where Leibniz went beyond Spinoza on the problem of determinism. Quantifying over the objects in sets of possible worlds is the way that modern computers represent/handle modal operations. The metaphysical implications of possible-worlds modeling is one of the core arguments in the recent revival of metaphysics, for example in debates between David Lewis and Alvin Plantinga. The young Bertrand Russell uncovered the forgotten Leibniz sources and made his own name with the publication of his book The Philosophy of Leibniz in 1900, one of the great interpretive coups of modern philosophy. Stewart waves the whole discussion off thusly: "Russell and others who sought to place the study of logic at the foundation of philosophy claimed to see in Liebniz's metaphysics an astonishingly prescient and coherent application of fundamental principles of logic." This implies that Stewart is a partisan who doesn't like the idea of "the study of logic at the foundation of philosophy," and is antagonized by Russell. Stewart never even bothers to explain possible worlds modeling: the fine index has 24 citations of "modernity," not one of "modality." But I doubt that I'm the only reader who picked up a popular discussion of Spinoza and Leibniz precisely because these metaphysical ideas are currently in the air.