Sunday, December 27, 2009

Buck's Mahabharata

In 1955 22-year-old William Buck was in the state library at Carson City, Nevada one day when he came across an old illustrated edition of "The Sacred Song of the Lord, the Bhagavad-Gita of Lord Krishna." The enthusiastic young scholar followed his sources upstream. In the earlier, English-language phase, he started what would be a long involvement with Indian publishers when he helped one to complete a reissue of an eleven-volume translation of the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic in which the Bhagavad-Gita is embedded (more on the text in a moment). Somewhere along the line he came to believe that a new English version of the Hindu epics was needed, a vernacular rendering abridged for story.

Sanskrit studies came next, but Buck is an autodidact and there is no clear line between collations of English versions and collations of Sanskrit and Hindi editions. We may be sure that he eagerly examined each and every edition that passed through his hands, regardless. In his case the accomplishment is stark enough: after fifteen years of work, he died in 1970 at the age of 37. He left behind completed versions ("rewrites" was his own preferred term) of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and an uncompleted Harivamsa. There continue to be remarkably few alternatives to this text, and it is a fine work of literature that creates a persuasive, phantasmagoric atmosphere to convey the experience of beings who are half human, half god.

As to gods: these medieval Indian epics date back to the older, classical Vedic period (as early as 9th century BC). As the literature of the Hindu culture moved from the classical Vedic Sanskrit to the vernacular Hindu Sanskrit these epic stories became vehicles for transmitting information of historical, philosophical and religious importance. Upanishads were originally reflective commentaries attached to classical Vedas. Sometime during the centuries-long process of accretion and insertion someone took an upanishad and wove it into the Mahabharata as a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, on the occasion of Arjuna's emotional turmoil on the eve of a battle in which he will face beloved cousins, uncles and even brothers.

It is an artful insertion and the one that first entranced him but William Buck in time left it behind. He found what all explorers of this sort of philological territory discover: the most important and authentic texts are also often the ones encrusted and encumbered with scholarly apparatus, annotations, translation issues, ritual technologies like repeated mantras, genealogies and lists of names. The Indian epics are doubly difficult this way as the text itself includes additions and commentaries. Buck wanted to dig a good story out of this Swiftian obscurity.

His cause was the story of the Kurukshetra War, a dynastic struggle between the related clans of Kauravas and Pandaras, that is the original scaffolding of the now densely-layered text. The Mahabharata is to Indian literature what Homer is to European literature. Both offer popular accounts of wars that probably have some basis in fact, although dates and geography have always been debated (both the Kurukshetra War and the Siege of Troy are reasonably dated as late Second Millennium). Both provided subsequent centuries with gods and heroes, who mix and intermarry (well interbreed at least) in both. Mythologized heroes are avatars (Sanskrit word) of various virtues and fatal flaws. There is a constant tension between the pull of worldly entanglements and the path of honor.

There is also to be found here a great deal of macho swagger and warrior virtue. The scenes of battle, with individual kings pushing into the battle under their own colorful banners and painted chariots and armor, are some of the best in the book. There is also a good sense of the interplay of magic and human causes. That enlightenment entails that one lose one's fear of death, in favor of embracing one's role in the larger process of passing away and coming to be, is basic Hindu ethos that comes ringing through during climactic battles when the higher beings fight each other to the death with comradely good humor and respect, earthly motives of revenge and ambition mixed in well throughout. That Buck was working during the golden age of the American cowboy genre doesn't feel coincidental.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Journal of Jules Renard

This month is the third anniversary of my starting this blog, and so it's fitting that the book I'm discussing today (I'm not sure I actually "review" them) is the first book sent to me gratis by a publisher. I get offers for free books regularly these days, most of which I'm not interested in, but I don't have any rules about such things. I still read only those books that I think I would like. This one sounded interesting: a reissue, by Tin House Books, of a one-volume abridgement, translated into English, of the journal of Jules Renard, a novelist and playwright of fin de siecle France who has long enjoyed a strong reputation in France but who has never been well-known to English-speaking readers (this text was originally published in 1964 by George Braziller).

The Journal covers 23 years, from 1887 to the year of Renard's death in 1910 at the age of 47. Renard achieved fame in his early thirties with the publication of L'Ecornifleur (The Ear of Corn)) in 1892 and Poil de Carotte (Carrot-Top) in 1894, and had steady work as a popular playwright after that. He is very clear on what is probably true, that "genius" is mostly a product of hard work, but somewhere along the line he becomes most interested in writing his journal, which came to be regarded as his masterpiece after its publication in stages culminating in an edition of 1935 that was issued in a Pleiades edition in 1960. This choice to become a private memoirist parallels his choice to spend much of his life in his ancestral village of Chitry, where he succeeded his father as mayor. The best parts of the journal are reflections on village life. There are amusing stories of the bohemian scene in Paris in the early years of the journal, but in his forties he did not conceal his discomfort when in the city.

Renard shows no interest in either the Symbolist movement of the time or what would become known as Modernism, despite personal acquaintance with Andre Gide, Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt, Auguste Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, J. K. Huysmans, Anatole France, Stephane Mallarme, and everyone else of note in literary Paris in the Gay Nineties. He reports feeling awkward when complimented by them, and for his own part he finds he has little to say (but don't miss his snarky take on the funeral of Verlaine). He spends quite a bit of time with Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the biggest star of the age. She performs several of his plays and tries mightily to charm him into her entourage, but although he is in some awe of her charisma ("It looks as though she were standing still, while the staircase turns around her") he sees right through her schtick and ultimately finds her ordinary. Maurice Ravel composes an interpretive score for Renard's Histoires Naturelles and personally urges Renard to attend the premier; Renard sends his wife instead.

What makes this conservative country gentleman, who wears the ribbon of the Academie Francaise on his lapel every day of his life (much to the confusion of the locals at Chitry, who have no idea what the decoration denotes) significant for his time is in fact his realism, particularly his psychological realism, which is of a piece with his deeply autobiographical inspiration. His relationship with Chitry has everything to do with his conflicted relationship with his awful parents. His father, heartbroken after the death in childhood of his oldest child, a daughter, has little interest in his remaining two sons and daughter but worse refuses to speak to his wife for thirty years until finally he commits suicide in their home. Renard and a servant are the ones who find the body.

Meanwhile Renard hates his mother. His mother, according to him, is a histrionic actor devoid of any real feeling. It's impossible to know to what extent this is true, since her every display of emotion is written off as so much transparent manipulation. She dies some months before Renard himself passes away. She falls into a well, but Renard does not believe it is suicide. Quite a bit of his work revolves around the character of "Mme. Lepic," a transparent and unflattering caricature of his mother. This, after all, is what makes him a significant writer.

"Maman talking about 'sin'! 'I had my faults, I still have my faults, but I've always had the right to walk with my head held high.' Yes, but papa cuckolded might have been happier."

This edition is an attempt at an accessible version of the Journal. It is basically aphoristic, and one can only assume that the original is aphoristic as well, although that is unclear. He is not a bad aphorist, not a great one (I would recommend La Rochefoucauld). He has a good sense of politics: "The voter believes himself to be the master. There's a confusion there. Why, no, my good man! You must vote in order to do right by yourself, not by me. It is I who am doing you a favor." He is a Socratic defender of common sense: "Ah, what beautiful things we should write if we were without taste! But voila - taste is French literature entire."

This is a book of great interest to any student of the period, and it is not bad, as I said, for one who enjoys aphorisms. There is another attraction, one that is contrary to our stereotypes of French sensibilities: Renard is an optimist, a man with a great deal of inner peace, a bemused lover of humanity and an ecstatic lover of nature (he writes one-line descriptions of the moon regularly throughout his life). His preference for Chitry, and for the privacy of his journal, is the choice of a man who is too satisfied to rage with the heathens, who knows nature as so many tragically do not. "I, I, not an enthusiast? A few notes of music, the sound of flowing water, the wind in the leaves, and my poor heart runs over with tears, with real tears - yes, yes!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burgess's The Doctor is Sick

Anthony Burgess's 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick is relatively early and more autobiographical than most of his 30-odd novels. As Burgess told the story, his collapse while teaching in Brunei and subsequent diagnosis of a brain tumor, which led to his repatriation to England and further time in a neurological ward before the diagnosis was shown to be false, led him, at the age of 42, to concentrate full time on his dream of being a writer. At the time of his passing over 30 years later in 1993 the penniless orphan and itinerant teacher would be a millionaire celebrity author, a Monaco-based tax exile with a string of properties across Europe. Burgess dramatized this story a bit: he was already a published author as well as an accomplished composer when he collapsed.

Nonetheless Burgess's talents and output were prodigious. In addition to several dozen novels he composed hundreds of pieces of music, spoke many languages fluently including Malay, Urdu, Arabic and Russian (he debriefed Dutch refugees in Gibraltar during the war), published works on literary criticism (including two book-length studies of Joyce that are well-regarded to this day) and linguistics, translations, and travel writings, all the while lecturing and teaching at universities across the world. In fact he resented the success of A Clockwork Orange (1962), the novel that made him rich and famous, for obscuring the rest of his work and skewing his reputation, which it certainly did (he would pointedly refer to it as one of his "minor works"). He is one of my favorite authors (one of my "culture gods," as my college poetry professor A. McA. Miller would say) and at this point I'm not sure how many of his books I've read. Thankfully there is always more.

The Doctor is Sick is, as I said, autobiographical, being the story of Edwin Spindrift, professor of linguistics, who is repatriated from Burma after a collapse and admitted to a hospital in London where he is scheduled to undergo brain surgery after a series of excruciating tests. He is accompanied by his wife Sheila, who has been for some time enjoying the company of other men owing to Edwin's impotence, and who quickly stops visiting him in the hospital in favor of haunting nearby taverns (Burgess's first wife Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism in 1968, at which point Burgess married his mistress Liana and acknowledged their four-year-old son. One wonders what Lynne made of the present novel).

Doctor is a good example of my favorite Burgess mode, satirical farce. The best of his comic novels are the four Enderby novels, academic comedies following the misadventures of the hapless and sordid poet. Another favorite is Honey for the Bears (1963), a satire of the Soviet Union that, like A Clockwork Orange, reflects his love for the sound of the Russian language. All of these novels chronicle farcical drunken escapades where various characters meet up with each other and alternate between befriending and assisting each other and robbing and abusing each other. They have an obvious debt to Evelyn Waugh in that wicked satire and lampooning of human foibles is the sugar coating over a deeper strain of moralistic outrage at what society has come to (Spindrift passes through a pinball arcade where the goal of one game is the destruction of the Earth). In both Waugh and Burgess there is a surface of hedonism and ribaldry that is perfectly entertaining in itself, and an underlying moral space for those readers who care to look.

Burgess's fascination with language is also given free rein here through the vehicle of the desperate Spindrift, who, dreading and doubting his impending brain surgery, "escapes" from the hospital, penniless, head shaven and wearing his pajamas under a stolen jacket, and goes on a mock-epic search for Sheila. Both the residents of the hospital ward and the various London lowlifes he encounters display various accents; this is Burgess's London speech novel. Edwin also muses on etymologies, orthography, cognates and usage while trying to survive his desperate adventure.

A mock-moral of the tale is that Edwin, the otherworldly academic (his surgeon resents that Edwin insists on the honorific "doctor"), must actually learn to survive on the streets, and thus "finds himself," this consisting of a) realizing that he might not necessarily be desperate to find Sheila after all, b) finding that he rather likes petty theft, which he turns out to be good at and which opens the possibility of "living in the moment," and c) discovering and learning to act out on his own inner reservoirs of rage towards authority and hypocrisy. In the end he returns to his life as a linguist, but liberated (from Sheila, from Burma, from his job). A nice drunken romp through late 50s London. I recommend it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Declan Kiberd

Declan Kiberd is one of the foremost contemporary Irish literary scholars. I have just read The Irish Writer and the World, a collection of essays published in 2005. This is a follow-up to the much larger anthology Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, which was published in 1996 to wide acclaim. At 699 pages (35 essays), Inventing Ireland is a bit too big of a bite for me right now, although I have a copy and I will get back to Kiberd, maybe on a vacation sometime (my idea of beach reading!). At 320 pages (19 essays) The Irish Writer was itself a bit of an experiment for me; I'm a philosopher by trade and I read novels and keep this blog for pleasure. Once I got into it, though, I found that it was a pleasure to read - I wish I had time to read Inventing Ireland right now, I just don't.

Kiberd is a scholar of the Irish Literary Revival, also known as the Celtic Revival, of the late 19th-early 20th century. This was the literary and cultural vanguard of the renascent Irish nationalism that culminated in the establishment of the Free State in 1922. It was, among other things, a sustained attempt to rescue the Irish language and Celtic traditions in general from oblivion, in which it was to some extent successful (Kiberd informs us that there are about 400 books published annually in Irish today). Its leading lights were the poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) and the folklorist Lady Gregory (1852-1932), who together established the Abbey Theatre that still mounts productions in downtown Dublin. Kiberd is perhaps the foremost expert on J. M. Synge (1871-1909), the playwright of The Playboy of the Western World (1907), which famously sparked riots during its premiere, and other plays that critically examined internalized Irish stereotypes and influenced Sean O'Casey (1880-1964) who produced many political plays including Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and Stars (1926).

Like his subjects, the protagonists of the Gaelic League, Kiberd is fluent in Irish, and the earlier essays here are interesting for their discussions of Irish-language novels and poems. However Kiberd is a dialectician by inclination and training (at one point he describes himself as a "radical") and he has not done his days' work if he does not deconstruct some set of preconceived notions about Irishness or the other. One theme I found refreshing was his work to break down the barrier between "Anglo-Irish" identity and literature and that of the "Catholic" (I suppose) Irish. This is important as many of the historical leading lights of Irish literature, from Swift to Wilde, have been members of the Anglo-Irish minority. Kiberd argues that the writers of the Irish Literary Revival and their successors developed a poetic style of English prose by writing English with Irish grammatical patterns and, more provocatively, that the Irish-language literature of the Revival and subsequently is deeply inflected by English. Irish cultural studies and literary criticism cannot Quixotically ignore the fact of deep Anglicization, in short. This is a striking example of the way Irish literature helps me understand cultural and social issues here in Puerto Rico where a defensive nationalism also sometimes leads to willful obtuseness about popular culture (lots of little jibarito tchotchkes in the tourist shops, lots of hip-hop fans in the classroom). Kiberd will have none of this.

This allows Kiberd to develop a broader compass of Irish literature, one that embraces Anglo-Irish writers like Wilde and Yeats and freely makes use of this resource in examining "native" Irish writers. Kiberd shows that the question of language is crucial for all Irish writers (and he is unafraid to weave an ongoing discussion of Joyce into his work). Kiberd is of the new generation of Irish artists and thinkers who want Irish letters to look forward, not backward, and he resists all attempts to manufacture Irishness. He is as much a political and social critic as a literary one, bringing to mind the contemporary Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter whose The Transformation of Ireland (2004) documents the transformation of Ireland into a modern European country in the 20th century.

Ferriter understands Kiberd to be framing the cultural identity issue as "posing the choice between nationality and cosmopolitanism," and it is true that Kiberd points up the apparent irony of the rise of Irish cultural nationalism in the form of the Revival at the same time as a generation of great Irish writers (Yeats, Joyce, Synge) writing in English. However, on Kiberd's view (I think) this is not an irony at all, rather we see two facets of one development, which is precisely Irish worldliness: the acceptance of a living presence of the Irish language and high aspirations for English-language Irish literature, rather than a self-defeating rejection of both. (Kiberd doesn't mention Ferriter, probably because Kiberd is the older man. Colm Toibin, inevitably, has blurbs on the jackets of both.)

Kiberd wants to foster a living Irish culture that is not self-conscious about drawing on both the Irish and the English elements when appropriate. He places Irish literature very persuasively in the larger context of modern-day Ireland, excoriating both the "designer Stalinists" (a recurring phrase) who would globalize Irish architecture and style out of existence, and those who would treat native culture as a kind of diorama to be preserved as an exhibit for the delectation of tourists (another problem common to Ireland and Latin America). He sees clearly that Ireland is at an historically defining crossroads, something he shares with contemporary novelists like Anne Enright and Dermot Bolger (Kiberd is disdainful of Bolger in earlier essays, warms up to him later. I agree Bolger is not a great novelist). Kiberd makes much of Ireland's modern prosperity, which he argues is another transforming element that renders past stereotypes worthless; reading essay 17, "The Celtic Tiger: a cultural history" (2003), I wonder what he has to say about Ireland after the economic downturn and real estate bubble that is causing such hardship today.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Asare Konadu's A Woman in her Prime

One of my ongoing projects with the Stack is to read through a shelf-full of novels in the African Writer's Series from roughly the 1960s, the combination of two departing colleagues' gifts of boxes of miscellaneous African literary stuff. The novels are mostly short, many but not all have been written in English. They are mostly West African, the literary constellation revolving around Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. It is not a big world, at least not on the internet: I received a nice e-mail from Cameron Duodo after I posted about his novel The Gab Boys (1967); I touched up (very slightly!) my post on Peter Abraham's A Wreath for Udomo (1956) when I realized that anyone Googling it on Earth was likely to have my post on their first page of links; and the best so far was having the Lagos magazine Farafina reprint my post on J. P. Clark's America, Their America (1963). I'm coming to appreciate some of the similarities among these "60s" African books, with their depictions of tough environments both rural and urban, their love of happy outcomes and celebration of life, and their Janus-faced didacticism, one half social criticism aimed at the national reader, the other cultural defense ("apology," in the classical Greek sense of that word) aimed at the Developed World, a much more well-defined entity in the post-colonial "sixties" than today in the post-modern "aughts."

This week I have discovered Samuel Asare Konadu (1932-1994), a Ghanian publisher and novelist who wrote many novels, at least nine by the 1971 publishing date of my Heinemann edition of A Woman in her Prime (1967). There is very little information, although I haven't done a long search. A Woman in her Prime was the 40th novel in the AWS, and his novel Ordained by the Oracle was the 55th.

Woman is a critical novel of village life with a progressive message that is modern but not reactionary. It deals with the problems of an African woman, Pokuwaa, who is in her 30s and has not had any children, considered a tragic condition by her society, not least by her mother. She has fired two husbands for this reason and her third, Kwadwo, is fearful of losing her. He loves her for her own sake: she has grown up to be a strong person and a good farmer. It is Kwadwo who provides the unconditional acceptance that helps her to resist the psychological pressure of her life (although the author understates this nicely).

Abetted by her obsessed mother Pokuwaa has been visiting various shamans and healers. But the omens are never good. When lightening strikes and burns an old tree near the village there is ominous talk of looking about for a witch. Pokuwaa's mother sees things the old way and is much alarmed. The last straw for Pokuwaa is when she comes across the body of a man near her farm. Out of fear, she doesn't say anything, letting the men go out and find the missing man themselves. A dire episode indeed.

But the last straw is a good thing for Pokuwaa. She gives up on the magic, on the theories of fate. She decides that she must just let life run its course. She gives up her burden. Ah, but this is a West African 60s novel, all 107 pages. So in no time at all she is pregnant and lives happily ever after. I think that Konadu wanted to make the point that a woman needn't have a child to be fulfilled (at least, no more than a man does): she comes to peace with herself first, gets pregnant after. But his view is that the traditional folkloric account that defined the emotional regime under which Pokuwaa lived was oppressing her, and perhaps contributing to her problems. That is, his target was not so much sexism as superstition, although he understood the negative social consequences for women of magical explanation.

In this way his novel is interesting to the western reader today. The western stereotype of the African novel is that it illuminates the positive side of Africa as a cultural soldier defending the homeland. But 60s African writers, like feminists, are often critics of traditions that have come to seem unenlightened and abusive. They did not have much international readership and thus were not as self-conscious as the modern African writer, who tends to criticize regimes more than societies. They thought that they were living through a transformative time, and they try to open doors to the future. They are gentle prophets of modernity, at times, and it is interesting to put their optimism up against the reality of modern Africa (I don't say that presumptuously, there are lots of ways that comparison could be played out). And there is the persistent theme that good character will out: that is a theme that links African and North American letters.

Related novels that are subjects of blog posts here include Onuora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys; Francis Selormey's Narrow Path; Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure; Nkem Nwanko's Danda; Chukuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel; Cameron Duodu's The Gab Boys.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How the Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill's 1995 How the Irish saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe was an easy home run for its author, with its appealing premise that Celtic monks preserved the best of Roman-period high culture and literature during the "Dark Ages" following the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth at the beginning of the fifth century AD. Mr. Cahill has a remarkable fluency with the classics, an old-school education that is all too rare these days, combined with a storyteller's ability to tease a world and an epic out of dauntingly scanty and arcane folklore and archeaology. His comparison of the strong and orderly Roman culture abutting wild back-country tribes was compelling.

It is harder to get a grasp of the Pre-Christian Celtic people, but our author is nothing if not into the spirit of the thing. There is often a tendency to "Orientalize" the Irish, but one has to admit that Cahill (who is also obviously fiercely loyal to them) gives us a consistent account of a tough pagan way of life. The relatively quick conversion from warrior culture to monastic society recalls the conversion of Tibet to Buddhism and raises the same kinds of questions.

Cahill continues to impress as a scholar during the extended discussion of the Irish leaders who followed Patrick, about whom he knows a great deal. Of course the old Latin culture continued in the Mediterranean as well, mostly through the vehicle of the Church, but Mr. Cahill is pleasantly persuasive that there was a place under the brush, if you will, off to the side, where some precious endangered shoots of human culture survived for a time. At points there is too much rhetoric around, but part of the difficulty here is filling out a story based on, sometimes, very little.

I also recommend Philip Freeman's The Philosopher and the Druids for some nice imaginative attempts to visualize the ancient Celtic world without taking too much liberty with the known facts. Also there is quite a bit about Patrick including a short autobiography and that is a topic I recommend.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farrell's Empire Trilogy

Discovering J. G. Farrell has been one of the principal delights of the past year or so's reading, first with Troubles (1970), a brilliant comic novel set in a crumbling, once-grand English resort hotel on Ireland's Wexford coast in 1919, the early years of the Irish War of Independence that ended with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Second is The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), which won the Booker Prize and rightfully so since it is the most well-realized of the three, an expertly-researched historical novel set in a remote British outpost in India during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. I've just finished the final book of the trilogy, The Singapore Grip (1978), which follows the fortunes of a family of wealthy British rubber planters in Singapore during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Malay and finally Singapore ("The Gibraltar of the East") in 1942, as good a date as any to mark the beginning of the collapse of the British Empire.

The Singapore Grip is an excellent novel by any standard and I highly recommend it. Having said that, it is the least of the three, but in a way that illuminates the arc of the author's career through writing the Trilogy (there are several earlier novels, I haven't read them), in terms of both aims and methods. Farrell starts out as a psychological portraitist and a writer of comic satire. Troubles wears its politics lightly and has a good deal of antic fun. Eight years later, The Singapore Grip is the work of the "Marxist" Farrell, with Matthew Webb, heir to a rubber fortune by way of Oxford, delivering long speeches detailing the predatory labor and tax policies of the colonials to the utterly debauched and scheming Blackett children, like a mad pedant in one of the more obscure works of Melville. The book includes a bibliography citing 51 sources. This is all to the good, such as it is; for example the technicalities of warfare are handled with economy and clarity that reflects a fluent understanding, as they also were in The Siege of Krishnapur.

The Singapore Grip is an ambitious novel that includes a lot: the rough, polyglot Singapore night life, source of the title; the ancient enmities of planter families that have been in Singapore for half a century of more; the status of Chinese and Eurasians and the consequences of a Japanese occupation for them; the bumbling of the English officers; intense scenes of firefighting as well as of battling and bombing: all of these things are handled very well.

Krishnapur is the best of the three because it comes in the middle of the progression from the wryly smiling satirist of Troubles to the tough tragedian of Singapor. It has the best elements of the two poles. The concentration on persons, with generous helpings of internal monologues, and the endless dry humor woven through the entire text are still there, but with more dire intent as Farrell grows morally ambitious and political. At the same time the historical detail of Krishnapur, for example the familiarity with period artillery and rifles that plays an important role in the story, is professional-level history. With the success of Krishnapur (I mean its artistic success, not popular or critical success) Farrell had a formula: he would mix a sophisticated revisionist history lesson into a literary form that was entertaining and expressive. And he succeeded. Put up against most historical fiction, Farrell is head and shoulders above the rest (Gore Vidal and Cormac McCarthy are exceptional as well).

It's sad that we have this very pat progression through three novels, because Farrell was washed out to sea in 1979 by a wave while fishing on Bantry Bay in southwestern Ireland, at the age of 44. Imagine if he had been with us for these past thirty years.

Here is my earlier post for Troubles, and here is my earlier post for the Siege of Krishnapur.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Elizabeth Bowen's Last September.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a descendant of Henry Bowen, one of Cromwell's colonels in the Invasion of Ireland of 1649. She wrote about ten each of novels, volumes of short stories, and belles lettres of essays, memoirs, and travel writings. She was born in Dublin, lived from 1907 to 1952 in England, and was an outrider of the Bloomsbury Group, where she is associated most with Rose Macauley and Sean O Faolain. She is considered a novelist of the 30s, possibly her most well-regarded novel is The Death of the Heart (1939), although her widest fame is probably as the author of "The Demon Lover" (1945), a short story depicting the mental trauma of the London Blitz. The Last September (1929), her third novel, combines two of her signature themes.

It is set in County Cork in the year 1920, the height of the Irish War of Independence, at Danielstown, the ancestral home of the Naylors, landed members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. In 1930 Elizabeth inherited the real Bowen's Court of County Cork, her family's property for over 250 years, and she retired there in 1952. Unable to make a go of it, the house was sold and rased (as the English say) in 1959. During the war years Bowen reported for the War Department on Ireland, and she published a memoir, Bowen's Court, in 1942.

The novel is also an example of her most central theme. Bowen's father suffered mental illness in 1907 and her mother passed away in 1912. Bowen was seen to by her aunts and sent to boarding school. She believed that the fundamental emotional experience of her life was the upper-class reserve that prohibited frank talk with a young Edwardian girl. Her novels are inhabited by wealthy but innocent young women who badly need guidance to navigate the complex and highly formal social world around them, but who receive none and must learn harsh lessons on their own.

The Last September depicts a world of tennis parties, long country-house visits, and young people's dances, and the incongruity would be even more obvious to an English or Irish reader of the 30s than it is to us today. Lois, orphaned ward of the Naylor's, is a self-conscious woman of nineteen or twenty. She and her few friends (she is used to a somewhat isolated life in the Irish countryside) are the romantic interests of the young English officers who are garrisoned in the town, searching poor homes for weapons and pursuing known guerrillas, while the Black and Tans make the countryside unsafe for anyone. The novel juxtaposes the detached mannerisms of the local gentry against the undercurrent of violence and threat.

The Anglo-Irish residents of Danielstown are lost in confusion as their Irish identity comes out from under them. For example,the Naylor household is nonplussed when a married house guest develops a crush on one of Lois's girlfriends. They are people who can only speak with an arch indirectness. In this most autobiographical of Bowen's novels Lois is a mixture of inchoate realization that she must make fateful decisions on her own and a deep girlish innocence about the romantic narrative of life.

Bowen is an ambitious stylist who generally makes good effects when she elevates her writing. She is not quite as modernist as many of her contemporaries but she does share the modernist penchant for internal monologue and oblique observation. I would say Henry James seems as big of an influence here as anyone.

Two other novels that depict the end of the Anglo-Irish world are the subjects of previous posts. One of the most famous is William Trevor's Fools of Fortune (1983), a very good book, but my personal favorite is J. G. Farrell's Troubles (1970). Neil Jordan's 1996 movie Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, is an interesting (but violent) attempt to depict the period.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gish Jen's Love Wife

Gish Jen's The Love Wife (2004) is an ambitious and difficult project that works its way to success. The second half of this fairly big novel (378 pages) is more engrossing than the first as the investments of both writer and reader pay off. In any project this big there are differences among passages and sections of the book, as well as bits of narrative business that are more the product of organization than of inspiration. It's great to be inspired but harder to apply the writer's art to the exposition of ideas in a workmanlike way that sustains the reader's pleasure as well as their interest. In this case my experience was that the novel got better, the characters more finely drawn, as Gish Jen settled down into her outline and let everyone live it out.

This is a "family saga" novel with an intellectual bent that does not always bother to conceal itself. Several interrelated themes are explored: the Chinese-American experience, adoption and identity, East-West culture clash and interracial marriage are all up on the board. It is a very good example of modern writing by people with strong ethnic identities who are also lifelong inhabitants of the secular Western world; Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and of course Amy Tan are other examples.

We might call this the "culture mash" genre. The point is not to polarize between reified cultures but to explore for insights into the human condition as diverse characters have to deal with people from both inside and outside of their traditional communities. This exploration is inevitably subversive of both (or all, if more than two) of the cultural and social traditions that are being "mashed." It is a delicate business. Too much stereotyping achieves the opposite of the intended effect. There is a fine line between saying something parodic and saying something offensive. On the other hand there is a temptation to phony symmetry: having "good" and "bad" characters for each "type." A certain fearlessness is required.

Here is the story of the marriage of Carnegie Wong, computer software-writing son of the immigrant and self-made real estate success Mama Wong, and Blondie Bailey, third-or-fifth-or-so generation WASP with roots in New England and a family place in Maine (Gish Jen lives in Massachusetts). When they meet Carnegie has already adopted Lizzy, a girl of mixed Asian inheritance (apparently a Chinese-Japanese mix, and adopted from China, thus perhaps the descendant of a Japanese soldier). Together they adopt Wendy, also from China, and some years later, as the girls are entering their teens, they unexpectedly have Bailey, their biological son (one doesn't say "natural" in adoption etiquette).

All is reasonably well for this prosperous suburban family (Blondie has a professional job as well) until the death of Mama Wong leads through a series of circumstances, some engineered by Mama Wong from beyond the grave, to the arrival of Lanlan, who the Wongs bring out of China and employ as a nanny for the children, installed in an apartment above the barn/garage. Lan is Carnegie and Blondie's age and originally from something like their social class, with childhood memories of a beautiful home and garden where she lived with her scholar father. With the "Cultural Revolution" of the 60s came the murder of her father and her own transportation to a rough "reeducation" town far away. Her relatives, including Mama Wong, have worked carefully to get her out of China. Now she finds herself the nanny for the affluent and interracial Wongs.

The narration of the novel is organized by name tags - "Carnegie/," "Blondie/," "Lan/," and also including Lizzy and Wendy, denoting whose first-person narrative voice we are hearing. Developing different voices this way is an exceedingly difficult thing to do. There is the problem of inhabiting disparate souls, but also the more basic problem of having a wide enough linguistic and psychological compass to make the voices distinct. In this Gish Jen is not entirely successful although the bilingual circumstances help (Gish Jen knows Chinese and gives us a generous helping). She does give us a very believable Chinese-American man and WASP woman. Having said that, it is no great critical surprise that her two adult Chinese women, Lanlan and Mama Wong, are the two most vivid characters in the book. Perhaps this is precisely because Gish Jen's own life has been closer to those of Carnegie and Blondie: the Chinese women engage her imagination more.

There are a lot of different paths the novelist could have taken starting from this set-up. I won't give the actual story away, if this sounds like your kind of material you should check Gish Jen out for yourself. Of course everyone can see the sense of the title. I was impressed by the way she handled Carnegie's inevitable feelings of lust for this romanticized Chinese woman suddenly living with his family. The danger is vivid. Also satisfying was the way Lanlan is at first indeed a romantic figure, with her patent lack of materialism, strong survival instincts and mixed feelings about China and America, and then gradually revealed to be a more ordinary (and thus more sympathetic) mortal. Also well done was the portrayal of Carnegie, at first he appears high-functioning and sympathetic (and he is both of those things) but one comes to understand the way he maintains distance through his dry wit, a skill developed growing up with the semi-abusive Mama Wong, and what a difficult husband this makes him.

I should mention that an additional point of interest here is a sustained discussion of adoption, as the two teenage girls deal with issues about belonging, self-understanding and other problems of adoptees, intertwining with their Asian-American experience. This aspect is also nicely woven into the plot. As to that, there is something of a genre market for family sagas, and as such they can be melodramatic, a kind of tony soap opera. Reading Louis Erdich's The Master Butcher's Singing Club I was at first interested in how rough of a god she was in the way she treated her characters, but after five or six tragedies too many I felt it was merely a novella (in the Spanish sense). E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, on the other hand, can stand as a paradigm case of how to treat these things with a subtler hand. Here Gish Jen takes maybe a step too far during the run-up to the climactic revelations at the book's end, but I forgave her on the basis of what came after.

Gish Jen herself is the fruit of two literary movements that are characteristic of the English-language novel of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. She is a second generation "culture mash" novelist (my coinage and you're probably observing the entire life of the phrase right here), and she is also coming out of the emergence of a strong tradition of women writers over the past fifty years who have developed the novel as a form for exploring human relationships, family histories, and the interplay of the personal and the political. Thus we enter an age when young women readers have a long shelf of good novels that are written in voices they can understand, about issues that are their own. Good thing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Duggan's Destiny: Irish Allegory, Curious and Dark

Daniel O'Connell, 1775-1847, was a descendant of ancient Irish kings, a member of a wealthy Catholic family that had been dispossessed of its lands by the English. A reformer and an advocate of non-violence, he was seated as the first Catholic member of Parliament in 1828 when it became clear that to deny him the seat would be to risk a major insurrection. "Emancipation," the repeal of the law restricting Parliament to members of the Anglican Church, was passed the following year. This was his greatest formal achievement, although he did also become the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin in modern times in 1841.

Listing these formal accomplishments conveys nothing of O'Connell's political stature in early 19th century European politics. Now mostly forgotten, his charismatic presence both in the House of Commons and in Ireland, at the height of British power, made him a lightening rod for pro- and anti-British sentiment across the Continent. Macaulay wrote, "Go where you will on the Continent...the moment your accent shows you to be an Englishman, the very first certain to be 'What will be done with Mr. O'Connell?'" Balzac wrote, "Napoleon and O'Connell were the only great men the 19th century had seen." William Gladstone called him "The greatest popular leader that the world has ever seen." He was counted as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In Ireland he was known simply as "The Liberator." In anti-English countries such as Catholic France and Italy he was hailed as a conquering hero, his every word covered in the press, his travels greeted by immense crowds.

His principal cause was repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, which had merged the English and Irish parliaments. To this end he held a series of huge rallies across Ireland in the early 1840s called "monster meetings," the largest of which were estimated to have drawn well over 100,000 people, unthinkable numbers for the time, until he was jailed for three months for sedition by the British. Although this only increased his popular authority, it also undermined his health and took the momentum out of the movement: the Irish Free State would not be declared until 1922.

Of course something else happened in the 1840s to take the life out of the Irish independence movement, and that was the potato famine which, through starvation and emigration, reduced Ireland's population by three quarters. Wealthy landowners took advantage of this to drive small farmers off of their lands and consolidate sheep-farming estates to profit from the burgeoning English textile industry (Marx's subject in Das Kapital). In the long sad history of Ireland the late 1840s is one of the saddest chapters of all.

O'Connell died during a trip to Rome in 1847, a trip meant both as a means of restoring his health and as a means of avoiding the embarrassment of letting hostile London see the deterioration of the old lion, who was diagnosed with "softening of the brain," perhaps Alzheimer's, greatly exacerbated by over-zealous treatment from doctors of the period. His personal valet, "Firefly" Duggan, kept a journal of this trip which was kept by the Royal Irish Academy where it was eventually read by Seamus Martin, retired correspondent and editor of the Irish Times. In 1998 Martin published the very curious novel that I have just read. A label on my Poolbeg Press paperback says "Was 7.99 pounds, Our Price 3.99 pounds, Book Bargains, 75 Mid., Abbey St., D. 1." So I bought it in Dublin, probably in a bookshop/cafe near O'Connell Street and O'Connell Bridge, along the Liffey.

Mr. Martin detects rich possibilities for allegory in Duggan's behind-the-scenes account of The Liberator's last days. And it's true; everything here is an allegory for everything else. O'Connell can represent the eternal failure of the Irish leadership to deliver freedom and prosperity to the poor majority; the frailty of the flesh behind the facade of greatness; the disappointment of a great movement cut short. Duggan has worked for O'Connell for years, and tirelessly works to keep the wreck of a man afloat, but he also sees all of the great man's faults - how can the valet not? "No man is a hero to his valet" is an epigram to the book. Most bitterly Duggan understands that he will be cast out into the street after O'Connell's death. He is in fact found another station in recognition of his service: working in the South Dublin Union, otherwise known as the poorhouse, where half-naked victims of starvation and typhus are taken to die. As he observes, the first corpse he ever washed was O'Connell's; now he cannot count the rest.

With the death of O'Connell comes the death of Ireland? Or was O'Connell's reformist pacifism part of the cause of the death of Ireland? There are chapters written by others, one by a young woman who claims that she was raped by O'Connell, who in any event was reputed to have many bastard children in addition to his legitimate seven. Another is a bitter testimonial to his political double-dealings by an ex-comrade. He was heroic but vainglorious, and his elaborate presentation of himself required endless financial machinations (in truth he had no real money of his own). He was in his essence a symbolic figure, that was his function. Titling the book "Duggan's Destiny" points to Duggan as Ireland, of course, and from the time that the thick black hair is replaced by a wig Duggan has no doubt of what will happen when the symbol is extinguished.

A popular entertainment this novel is not. Much of the book is graphic detail of the disintegration of an old man's mind and body. I would recommend it to readers with an interest in the famine years. It does have depths. I think Seamus Martin saw that the material was deep by itself and that it just needed the writing. Documenting the real-life Duggan's journal in this way was a populist act befitting an Irish newsman. (Another recent novel about this period reviewed in this blog is Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Maurice Collis on Cortes and Montezuma

Maurice Collis was born in Dublin in 1889, studied history at Oxford, and spent twenty years in Asia with the Indian Civil Service. His career was effectively destroyed by his book Trials of Burma, published in 1937 and describing sedition trials in Burma in 1929-1930, in which he adopted a too sympathetic attitude towards the Burmese nationalists and a too critical one towards the British colonial authorities (he was district magistrate for Rangoon at the time). Upon his return to England he wrote many books of history and biography, mostly to do with the British in Asia.

In the early 1950s he became interested in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and, finding himself dissatisfied with the Eurocentric Conquest of Mexico published by the American William Prescott in 1843, and seeing further possibilities opened up by the much more rigorous Hernan Cortes published by the Spaniard Salvador de Madariaga in 1941, he wrote Cortes and Montezuma, originally published in 1954 and reissued in 1999 by the wonderful New Directions Books, which has been one of the most important American imprints for serious literature for many years.

New Directions knows good writing when they see it, and we should be most grateful that we have this book, where a master storyteller spins the tale of what has to be one of the most bizarre and gaudy epics to have ever transpired: something much deeper and stranger than anything that anyone could make up. As a student of literature in college I discovered history when I realized that this was true of a great deal of history. Meanwhile, when I ordered this book from the New Directions' catalog some years ago (since when it has been floating around my bookcases), I had no idea if it was history or some sort of interpretive fiction or what. It just looked cool.

And cool it is, as Collis, convinced that previous chroniclers failed to understand the thinking of the Mexicans (they called themselves "Mexicans," by the way. "Aztec" is, according to Collis, a word of European coinage), set out to learn all he could about the "astro-magical" calculations of Montezuma and those around him. This has traditionally been difficult since the Spanish Catholic priests who came in Cortes's wake, although not genocidal and with their share of selfless heroes, did do their best to destroy every vestige of Mexican sacred writings, icons, and rituals. As with many other areas of early history, we are actually today in a better position to interpret many of these events than anyone has been since they occurred, as we now have several reasonably well reconstructed Mexican sources as well as a cadre of scholars of the classical Nauatl language to read them.

The story is of course amazing, better when one has the sensibility both to appreciate the magical aspects and to ask sceptical questions. On the one hand Cortes had the seemingly impossible luck as to appear to the Mexicans to be the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the god of the highways and the wind, who had disappeared into the East millenniums before with the promise that he would destroy anyone who resisted his return. According to Mexican legend he was a white-skinned man with black hair and beard. The year that Cortez arrived on the coast of modern Mexico, 1519, was, according to legend and to Collis's reading, the end of a 52-year cycle that culminated in the return of Quetzalcoatl and his confrontation with Humming Bird, the militant incarnation of Smoking Mirror. Thus Montezuma attempted to convince Quetzalcoatl/Cortes to go away without confronting him directly. It is a great part of Collis's thesis that Montezuma regarded Cortes as a modern astronomer would regard a returning comet, and that highly precise calculations of an astronomical nature governed his thinking on strategy. (It is also important that Cortes understood none of this, perhaps not even to the very end.)

On the other hand it is certainly not the case that the Mexicans simply acquiesced, on astro-magical grounds, to the hegemony of Spanish forces. In fact Montezuma was killed by stone-slingers of his own people who revolted when Montezuma acquiesced to his confinement in the temple of Lord Face of Water's Palace, just down the street from his own palace. Subsequently the Spanish were routed from Mexico City and spent the better part of a year besieging the city and conquering it by force. An undeniable part of the story is Cortes's prowess as a field officer, who held his troops together under attack from numbers exponentially greater than his own.

As in the case of Pizarro's subsequent conquest of the Incas in the Andean lands (which did much to eclipse the reputation of Cortes during his own lifetime), a crucial part of the story is the cooperation with the extranjeros of local subject peoples. In particular Cortes enlisted, after fierce battles that convinced them of his importance, the Tlaxcalan people, who were older residents of the area (the Mexicans were derived from North American tribes) who saw themselves as culturally older and more distinguished than the Mexicans and who resented their depredations.

As to that, another decisive factor was the fact that the locals fought in a manner calculated to obtain live captives, who would subsequently be sacrificed to the gods and eaten. (The ruler before Montezuma is on record as having sacrificed as many as 20,000 people at a time in rituals designed to placate the gods of nature.) Montezuma himself was known to dine on the flesh of young boys, a fact highly distracting to the Spaniards who shared his table and who were at times unable to distinguish between various savories.

The Spanish, by contrast, had horses, heavy armor, and fought with sword and lance thrusts designed to kill. They were concerned with maintaining their own formations in order to survive, although the fact is that hundreds of Spanish were killed and many more were captured and sacrificed to the gods of the Mexicans. Cortes was tough and shrewd, and vastly ambitious, but his real genius was as a field officer. It was clear to every Spaniard, not all of whom were entirely loyal to him, that they would all perish if he were killed. Meanwhile the lure of gold was not merely fantastic; Cortes had a difficult time paying his local allies for provisions and always needed cash and credit to proceed.

All of this is superstructure to a fantastic story of individuals, men and women, Spanish and Mexican, who underwent tests of fortitude that most of us, thank God, will never even have to contemplate. Bernal Diaz's reminiscences, certainly the most important source for Collis, tell us of many individuals, their personalities, their foibles. I have a copy of Diaz here, and a copy of Prescott of course, but I'll move on, reluctantly enough: this is one of the great stories of all time, brilliantly narrated by Collis.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

W. G. Sebald

I've just read The Emigrants (1992), one of W. G. Sebald's earliest writings and probably his best-known work (I read the English translation by Michael Hulse). It's easy to see why the cognoscenti have embraced this book, which is not a large novel at a fast-reading 237 pages with black-and-white photographs scattered through the text. It is written in a clear, elegant and very urbane style; stylistically it could have been written anytime in the 20th century. The author conveys both landscapes and characters in a deft and persuasive manner that is made to appear effortless, although a great deal of thought as well as research certainly must have gone into its composition. Regarding the quality of the prose one could read it all day long and never tire of either the tone or the sensibility. It is the epitome of cosmopolitanism and sobriety.

But the superb quality of Sebald's technique is not what makes The Emigrants a book that will, I predict, be read and cited for many years to come. Sebald has taken the topic of literally thousands of books - European antisemitism and the ongoing destruction of Mitteleuropa Jewish culture throughout the early 20th century, culminating of course in the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust - and given it a treatment so subtle, so gentle, so personal and yet so indirect as to cause the reader to gain further appreciation of the human cost of events and movements that have been at the center of discussion for half a century.

Four sections present reminiscences (a nameless first-person narrator is different people and yet the same person in all four) of four different displaced European Jews. Some left before the rise of Nazism (but still to escape antisemitism). Others are survivors of families that perished in the camps. They come from disparate parts of Europe, although Switzerland figures most prominently throughout the book. Some have gone to England, some to America, some are still on the Continent. They all live, superficially, more or less ordinary lives. They are not necessarily poor, although certainly several are now in greatly reduced circumstances. They remember their school days. They remember earlier lives as proper people in the proper German-speaking world. They remember a world that is gone.

It is one thing to reflect on the violent deaths of millions (six million Jews, twenty million Russians, who knows how many millions of Asian people), but there is another dimension to the human cost of war and genocide: the people who are scattered, like dust, to the four winds, left to live out their lives as displaced persons, with no choice but to carry on, as people who have lost loved ones must also simply continue. Suicide is an option. Silence is unavoidable. One must get on. Memories persist. There is a long, impressive passage in the last section of detailed memories of growing up in a respectable Jewish family in rural Germany. It is an ordinary, traditional, conservative life. It is neither luxurious nor deprived. It is strict but comfortable. Pleasures are simple. This is normal human life, and it is very beautiful.

The narrator is given these written memoirs by a relative of the now-deceased woman who wrote them. He feels he must go to these towns (Kissingen and Steinach), and he makes a pilgrimage there (one of several such trips of return in the book). He manages to find an old, overgrown Jewish cemetery. Otherwise nothing remains. There is nothing to go back to, and these journeys of return are unsatisfying if not disturbing. All that remains are human flotsam, now far away. That, and something else.

This is not a great masterpiece, but it is a minor masterpiece, and I certainly recommend reading it. I will read another.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ken Bruen's The Guards

Last year for St. Patrick's Day I posted about "hard-boiled Irish," the distinctly noirish atmospherics that come blowing in in no time at all when one starts reading contemporary Irish fiction. In days gone by, before I started this blog, I also spent many's the long evening enjoying detective stories, scores and scores of them, working out (like everybody else) from the masters Chandler and Hammett. The "hard-boiled" (promise not to use the phrase again) detective novel is a highly formalized, almost ritualistic genre, with a strict set of criteria for the protagonist: he must be tough, dogged, honest and loyal, indifferent to money, unafraid of a fight, and on a knightly quest to save or avenge an innocent, preferably a comely woman of the fallen variety.

The basic rows for post-Chandler novelists to hoe are: working variations on the form without going too far (larcenous antiheroes for example); applying the form to some geographical region, profession other than shamus, or some other target-demographic niche; and working the borderlines between the detective novel and close genres such as the murder mystery, a kind of puzzle book, or the thriller, which is usually a military or espionage fantasy, or the western, where heroic virtues are also stressed. It is optional to aspire to high literary quality (some of the best, like Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake, couldn't care less), but it is not optional to write well: detective novelists must "write for story," that is they must keep the action moving along, they must hide the machinery (like good television hosts, they make something that is hard to do look effortless), and they must find some way to make the narrative emotionally compelling. I've tried it, it's a lot harder than it looks. (My characters always seemed to end up standing around in a circle on the lawn. Raymond Chandler claimed that he would write the phrase "A man came through the door with a gun" when he was blocked, and that did the trick.)

So seeing strong literary notices of Ken Bruen's The Guards, a tough-guy novel set in Galway, where my mother's family comes from and where I've traveled a bit, it was a natural for the Stack. It is as advertised very tough indeed and aficionados of the genre will come away satisfied. It also provides much local color including even Kenny's Books, a great store that has helped me long-distance since my visit, as well of course of other environs too subterranean for the average tourist. It reads, as tough-guy novels should, very fast, almost too fast as Bruen empties his pages with terse dialogue and lists and just empty space. But what I found most entertaining was the way Bruen bent the rules of the genre around.

First there is Bruen's fine conceit, and one to which perhaps only an Irishman is entitled, that every character and certainly the protagonist/narrator is highly literate, concerned with grammar, and widely familiar with popular culture. There are many asides about the merits or lack thereof of various American, English, and Irish locutions; no matter what the circumstances Jack Taylor finds time to grouse about the careless or cliched way someone is speaking. Very many allusions to music and to books are welcome to an exploratory reader who likes to take suggestions. It is a nice joke that the most erudite speaker of all is Padraig, a kind of lordly wino amongst the shoals of drunks.

As to that, there is the alcohol issue. Philip Marlowe used to drink water glasses filled with rye whiskey (can you even find a bottle of rye any more?) before he went to bed, and Nick and Nora Charles would gleefully line up eight martinis on the bar to unwind. These days there is a revisionist line on the booze issue. In terms of the popular detective novel, I would mention James Lee Burke's very good (and at this point very prolific) series set mostly in the bayou country of Louisiana with his AA 12-stepping hero Dave Robicheaux. Jack Taylor is very much "in his disease," as we say, but Bruen also talks the Big Book talk. In terms of recent Irish fiction, I'm an advocate of Eamonn Sweeney's Waiting for the Healer, a novel that traverses some of the same territory that Bruen is developing here. Another recent Irish novel that can fairly be put up against this one is Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home, although if it's entertainment you're after I'd recommend The Guards.

Jack Taylor's alcoholism is a central theme of the book. It bends, as I said, the conventions of the genre. Jack isn't much of a detective. He doesn't bring the bad guys to justice. He doesn't, at the end of the day, do much of anything, because his own basic struggle is with The Bender. He blacks out for days. The pretty mother of the (maybe) murdered girl gives up on him and moves on, and she's right. The bad guys are dealt with, as much as for any other reason, because one of Jack's friends is one of the local psychopaths. He rejects the police (the garda, the Irish term universally used in Ireland), the church, and his own mother, but the reader can see that they're not all bad (just bad enough). He's got the Chandlerian virtues, but that's pretty much it, because the truth is he can't hold his liquor.

So in the end, the book is what I would call a "pure noir": a damaged character just barely does anything virtuous, and what he does do he is able to do solely because the other people he is dealing with are themselves so morally compromised that any action grounded in any sense of justice is relatively good. Another master of this form is James Crumley, whose protagonist C. W. Sughrue is also an alcoholic; as in a western, he might just be checking in to a motel and run into some bad guys - he just can't help himself.

There are now a number of Jack Taylor novels, and if I ever go back to reading tough-guy genre novels I'll check them out. If that's what turns you on, you could do worse. But I can't go on recommending, because really this is a thriving genre, and there are just too many good examples to mention. This one's Irish: that's a good thing.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Two Guyanese Novelists

My copy of Roy Heath's Kwaku, or The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut (1982) came to me in a box of books given to me by a friend who was moving, a box mostly full of African literature from the sixties, and I confess I didn't have much idea of what it was when I added it to the Stack. It is a novel of Guyana, and by coincidence the author has historical similarities to the author of the only other Guyanese fiction I have read, Wilson Harris, whose Guyana Quartet (a 1985 omnibus edition of his first four novels, Palace of the Peacock, 1960, The Far Journey of Oudin, 1961, The Whole Armour, 1962, and The Secret Ladder, 1963) I read sometime before starting this blog a couple of years ago. They are contemporaries, Harris born in 1921 and Heath in 1926; Heath moved to England in 1951 and Harris did the same in 1959, and both men spent the rest of their lives there (Heath died in 2008 and Harris, as far as I can tell from Googling, is still with us), and both started writing as expatriates.

Today there is a vibrant Guyanese literature written in-country and by young writers with working class immigrant backgrounds in the US, including women writers and much social realism, similar in all of these ways to contemporary Spanish Caribbean literature. Wilson and Harris represent the previous generation, with the traditional colonial sense of living on a far fringe of the old (in their case British) empire, and without the omnipresence of America and its secular pop culture. They are inward-looking writers who focus on the quotidian challenges of economic survival, social dignity, and romantic happiness of their young male characters. The younger generation of Caribbean writers (Maryse Conde, Junot Diaz, or Edwidge Danticat for examples) tends to have a strong sense of identity forged in the post-colonial, post-sixties dialectic of identity politics.

The characters in these earlier novels are almost wraithlike in comparison, unsettled and inchoate in their sense of themselves, their relation to historical and cultural elements (notably magical explanations and folk mythologies), and live in deeply insular worlds of small villages at the very edge of the bush. They are humble people confronted with a hardscrabble reality who do not necessarily see themselves as moral agents or as representatives of a "people." They are self-interested by necessity. They do not see, say, endemic alcoholism as a symptom of oppressive conditions caused by far-off sinister powers, but rather as a plain fact of emotional survival. No information is coming in from beyond the horizon, and none is sought.

In Kwaku Heath does a wonderful job of conveying the ragtag fatalism of these poor people. Everyone, including Kwaku himself, sees him as a sort of village idiot, but what sets him apart from the rest is not obvious. He dares to think that he might make things better, get to a better world, but he is unable to organize himself and is so resistant to conformity as to have virtually no friends among his village peers. Still he lives a life that is much more than nothing, with his wife Miss Gwendoline (originally scouted out by Kwaku's uncle who needs to marry him off to get rid of him), who in spite of everything is in love with Kwaku to the end, and their eight children, a job soling shoes for the local cobbler who knows him to be a reliable worker, and even something of a photography hobby encouraged by his neighbor old Mr. Barzey who gives him an ancient camera.

All of this comes apart when Kwaku decides to try to escape village life by moving to New Amsterdam (Georgetown is too intimidating a prospect) where he acquires a reputation as a healer. He is patently a fraud although in fairness he never asked for people to decide he had such powers. Thus ensues an interlude of having money, decent clothes, and a sense of respect that has heretofore eluded him. This is all short-lived. Kwaku is one of the lost, without the resources to be a householder, a patriarch, or a professional. His only freedom is poverty, the freedom to lose your house, or your job, or all of your money, because it never amounted to anything anyway.

That all sounds pretty bleak, but this isn't a bleak book. It's frequently funny and filled with engaging characters and incidents, episodes just outlandish enough to be outrageous and possible at the same time. Everyone speaks in a local English patois that features interesting grammatical structure and plenty of idiomatic phrases and verbal tics. I found it entertaining and I recommend it.

The pleasures of Wilson Harris are more austere. His style is both erudite and dreamlike. He is not following the Spanish "magical realist" formula, he comes to his foggy surrealism through his own ideas about characters who live on the margins of the town and the jungle, the old and the new. There is a far greater awareness of the surrounding tropical forest (Harris was a trained land surveyor and served as Senior Surveyor for Projects for British Guyana for four years in the fifties). Some of the most memorable passages occur at a work camp where a small group of men have to sort out their status and their motives. He is darker than Heath, there is violence and menace, both between characters and from nature (a jaguar carries away a neighbor's baby). The river is always present, both of these writers of Guyana portray the fact that coastal Guyana is a wet, tropical place. At times Harris was a little too atmospheric for my taste, I remember a sense of plowing along through a pea-fog narrative that could be hard to follow, but as I said this is definitely by design. Harris is the more ambitious of the two, but Heath is the more entertaining.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vile, Silly Bodies

I have a few old favorite writers with whom I salt the Stack. Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell come to mind. One of them is Evelyn Waugh, and I've just read Vile Bodies (1930), published when he was 27. I read Waugh essentially for laughs. He is a social satirist with the sharpest of tongues, and a keen ear for English (as in the country, not the language) accents and idioms. England is a country where accents reflect class as much as they do region, and Waugh epitomizes this very English practice of using idiom to portray the farcical collisions of parallel social worlds.

Waugh is also a master of English silliness. "Silliness": not exactly absurdity, although closely related (Monty Python), there is a streak of adolescence running through English humor. Part of this is catharsis for the socially hyper-vigilant, protocol-bound English, part of it reflects a feeling of insularity and of belonging to a closed society, like the "public school" communities that produced so many English writers. There is a kind of showing off to the other lads, talented enough to get away with it with teacher (if history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, that would be Evelyn Waugh:wicked::Kingsley Amis:obnoxious). Other notable in-crowd entertainments of the period are Ronald Firbank whose antics have not aged as well, and P. G. Wodehouse's very funny stories of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, which are still very funny and still have a satiric bite (an Englishman in graduate school with me in the States frowned once at the mention of Wodehouse: "I don't approve of all that class snobbery," he said, obviously having no idea).

In Vile Bodies a drunken socialite, strip-searched at customs coming over from France, uses her social connections to the Prime Minister to exact revenge, only to precipitate the fall of the government when the PMs mousy daughter has the Bright Young Things over to 10 Downing Street in the wee hours of the morning. The writer of a London gossip column commits suicide when he can no longer get invited to the right parties, and his replacement finds success making people up and touting awful restaurants and clubs as the next hot place, although his attempt to get London's gentlemen to wear green bowlers meets with little success. And so on. The first half, where the Bright Young Things are rampaging around London and environs, is better than the second, mostly taken up with the stilted and abortive courtship of Adam and Nina against the backdrop of Nina's deranged old gentleman father and his crumbling estate.

This is the Waugh that everyone knows: sharp-tongued, witty, laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite of these is Scoop (1938, the first Waugh novel I read), more lampooning of the newspapers which in Waugh's universe are filled with the sheerly false as well as some great sequences in British East Africa, which is also the scene of Black Mischief (1932; Waugh's inhumanity to man certainly extends to Africans towards whom he is patently racist. The only thing that can be said in his defense is that, come on, he hates everybody). These three and Decline and Fall (1928, his first novel) are the best satirical novels and they all deliver: you will laugh while you read them.

But it is easy to be misled about what Waugh is, easy to identify him as someone reveling in the gratuitous privilege of classista interwar Britain. He is not that. He is in fact deeply critical of this society, drawing attention through conspicuous absence to the generation of young men who lost their lives in World War I and chillingly prescient about more wars to come. On the last page of Vile Bodies two officers drink champagne with a prostitute in the general's staff car in the middle of a devastated battlefield "and presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return." George Orwell described Waugh as "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." I love George Orwell but I doubt he grasped Waugh.

Waugh is also a deeply religious man who seems to embody secular modernism precisely because he is at war against it. There are occasional glimpses behind the mask in the satirical novels, but his masterpiece is Brideshead Revisited (1945) (I remember as a teenager thinking that I really needed to read Brideshead first!). In this novel he is in the zone, at the peak of his powers as a stylist, and the writing is beautiful enough to carry the reader along through the disquisition on the modern loss of moral foundations. Come to think of it, he reminds me of Nabakov this way: most of Nabakov's work is dark, well-written, and under-read (Laughter in the Dark, Despair, Invitation to a Beheading), but Lolita rises above the rest by the power of the prose itself. Brideshead Revisited is Waugh's equivalent, the masterpiece.

There is much more. There is a trilogy of war novels (published together under the title Sword of Honor) that I have not read but that is not regarded as his best work. I have read A Handful of Dust (1934) which in my opinion is too rough to be considered "satire" although I can imagine being in a dark enough mood to be amused. There is quite a bit of travel writing that I do intend to explore.