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!