Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mariama Ba

Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter (original French, Une Si Longue Lettre), 1980, is short, 89 pages: as advertised, it is a letter from Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese schoolteacher living outside of Dakar, to her friend Aissatou, who has gone on as a translator to a life in Europe and the United States. These are not impoverished people, they are professionals with houses, cars, and children in schools, but the reality of extended families, crowded communities and precarious good fortune insures that financially desperate characters are always in the mix.

The real issue here, though, is marriage. This book is a narrative of injustice based on Islam's acceptance of polygamy, something Arab evangelists of Islam had in common with African populations during the spread of Islam across that continent. Ramatoulaye is herself a Muslim with a strong spiritual practice, and her faith gives her the strength to come out into the light of forgiveness, firmness and integrity during her struggles. Ba does not inhabit a simple world. All of the characters are respected, there are some who have progressive ideas, others who are good-hearted, and this compassion extends to the older men and younger women who can make life such a hell for older women in a society where polygamy is accepted.

Aissatou's vengeful mother-in-law orchestrated a second marriage for her husband, the orphaned daughter of his uncle who his mother has raised explicitly for this purpose. Ramatoulaye, years later, essentially loses her husband when he marries one of her daughter's friends after twenty-five years of marriage, and quickly drifts away from the first wife who has had twelve pregnancies, and has nine children, by him. Both women are galvanized by the experience to develop their own lives and characters. The letter is written on the occasion of the death of Ramatoulaye's husband and the revelation that one of her daughters has become pregnant, which perhaps helps to explain the atmosphere of forgiveness and compassion that suffuses the book, although hard-won spiritual strength is clearly driving this narrative.

There is an interesting connection between writing quality and the quality of passion that a writer has. Many African novels that I read are engaging for place, for custom, and for history, but Ba's book stands out as particularly well-written, and one can't help but feel that the precision of the sentences is reflecting the author's passion to communicate the power of the injustice that she has seen and experienced. The heterogeneity of attitudes, opinions, and styles expressed by the various characters defy easy stereotypes. It is a great loss that Ba passed away after writing only two books. This one reveals talent to spare.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Aut Tunc, aut Nunquam

"It's now or never." This epigram from Nunquam sums up Lawrence Durrell's approach to both writing and living. A wondrous childhood in much-beloved India followed by a painful adolescence in much-despised England formed a man ravenous for cultural experience and obsessed with authenticity of feeling. Durrell wandered widely ("peripatetic" is the word), spending the last decades of his life in France, but the eastern Mediterranean, cradle and crossroads of the world, was his great love.

Exiled from Greece to Egypt by WWII, his first marriage breaking under the strain, he produced in 1957-1960 the novels collectively known as The Alexandria Quartet, a gem of bohemian sensibility and psychological style perfectly timed between the Beat 50s and the Psychedelic 60s (neither of which cultural movements Durrell, born in 1912 and the expatriot's expatriot, with little interest in the US, ever had much to do with). If you're going to read Durrell for the first time (lucky you) the Quartet is it. After that, much of his best writing is non-fiction, his writing about Greece is priceless and my personal favorite is Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953), a perfect little book that puts one in the company of about as good an evening's companion as you are likely to find. Also not to be missed are his humorous memoirs of working for the British diplomatic authorities in Greece after the war, Esprit de Corps (1957), Stiff Upper Lip (1958) and Sauve Qui Peut (1966).

So I added to the Stack The Revolt of Aphrodite, a 1974 omnibus edition of his second novel sequence Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). This came up to be read just in time for our summer travels, a happy circumstance (at Christmas I ended up with Cormac McCarthy, not exactly festive).

To me "bohemian" means as much "worldly" as it does "arty," the timeless sensibility of the citizen of the world. Society at large moves through periods of relative liberality or prudishness, but the true bohemian lives outside of fashion, always creative, always subversive, always a mix of civility and uninhibitedness, in whatever city, in whatever time. Literateness, the ultimate product of true literacy, is prized above all: understanding is the savor of life. The true bohemian is their own life's work. The masterpiece is not a novel or a painting, but a conversation over a drink. This is the appeal of Durrell.

Having said that, The Revolt of Aphrodite is for established Durrell fans like me to move on to. It is not as good as the Quartet. That's hardly damning. The books are well worth reading. Tunc, the first one, is better than Nunquam, which works through the concepts and the business of Durrell's ideas, and thus lacks some of the character and color of the earlier passages.

Felix Charlock is a scientist and engineer by training, interested in the technology of audiology and the nature of speech. Thus are set up two of the major themes here, first the tension between the natural, intuitive artistic sensibility and the controlling, analytic scientific sensibility, and second the nature of memory and of the narratives that we construct to represent our lives and selves to ourselves and others. Charlock (perhaps resonances of Shylock, as in Shakespeare, but easier to feel resonances of Sherlock, as in Holmes) is a typical Durrell character, moving easily among an elite group of professionals and tattered scions of local nobility, starting the evening at the grand but crumbling villa before moving on to dusky bars and brothels, bedding the local talent with seemingly no effort (Durrell is old school so far as the libido is concerned). The city is Athens, later we are in a much more impressionistic Istanbul and much of Nunquam takes place in London.

Athens is true civilization, Turkey Asiatic barbarousness and England European soullessness. There is a good character named Caradoc, a brilliant but erratic architect. Charlock is engaged to record Caradoc's speech at the Parthenon; Hippolyta, a wealthy local, has organized the speech as a social event. I didn't expect Durrell to actually write the speech. This sort of thing is very difficult to do, as when an author has a character who is a great poet or scientist. The usual practice is simply to refer to the character's talents and let the reader imagine the rest. But Durrell gives us quite a brilliant disquisition on architecture, power, and mythology. There is a sense that Durrell wants to present some of his philosophical work. Many of the characters make pronouncements that are well-formed aphorisms.

Charlock becomes an employee of "the firm," a corporate entity, ostensibly mercantile, that has grown into a kind of secret society, controlling the lives of its members. The characters thus have a very literal version of the moral dilemma of integrity and autonomy vs. worldly success. In Nunquam we move on to heavier allegory, as one of the twisted Svengalis of the firm sets the project of constructing an artificial woman, a replica of the beautiful Iolanthe, a Greek woman of the streets who has become a film star and then died tragically. Durrell isn't interested in the science fiction possibilities here. He doesn't bother trying to explain how an artificial woman might be possible. He wants to think about the difference between our idea of a lover, or of an object of desire, and the real person (or the unreal person, for that matter).

As I said, Durrell is old school and it must be said that there is a fair degree of misogyny in the air. The women characters are physically beautiful but not personally so, although here as elsewhere (Justine) Durrell acknowledges women's sexuality with the same frank acceptance as men's. Part of the sense of rough treatment of women characters in Durrell stems from the fact that they fall into sexual liasons just as easily and naturally as the men, but that is perhaps closer to real life after all.
Last word on The Revolt of Aphrodite: if you already know that you like Durrell, you'll enjoy more of the same. First-timers, I refer you to The Alexandria Quartet.