SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH – A BOLD CHOICE FOR THE NOBEL…OR IS IT?
Nobel laureates Theodor Mommsen, Rudolph Eucken, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Winston Churchill have spent many decades receding from memory. To be sure, they are not altogether lost, a century and some is not long enough in the modern era for total erasure. Churchill’s name we know, albeit for other reasons. Russell’s and Bergson’s have a familiar echo. A few historians whose specialty is ancient Rome know something of Mommsen. Eucken has all but vanished. A dustier collection of books never hid along the nether reaches of the library stacks.
Today the Belorusian writer Svetlana Alexievich joined their ranks, becoming the sixth writer to be awarded the world’s most prestigious literary prize for work that is neither fiction, nor poetry, nor drama. That is to say, nothing of what is almost universally meant by “literature”. One would like to say that her being so honored could blow some of the dust off the other five’s books, renew interest in their achievements. It is not likely. One would also like to say that she will not share there fate, once a similar number of decades have past. This no one can say. What can be said is even within this small group, she is in a minority of one, winning not for history, or philosophy, but for journalism. More an occupation, you would be forgiven for thinking, than a literary pursuit, although many writers have done time as journalists. It seems ever more a thing of the past that an aspiring novelist, following the Hemingway model, would consent to an apprenticeship of investigative journalism to make ends meet during their early careers. So, on a list of eminences such as Peter Nadas, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Philip Roth, and Adam Zagajewski, all potential candidates for the Nobel, it is easy to view Alexievich’s work as déclassé. Admirable, to be sure, even important. But literature?
We should, perhaps, take another look. She is, after all, a writer. Voices from Chernobyl, and Zinky Boys are, in fact, books, and, by all accounts, the quality of the writing they exhibit is high and the formal innovation worthy of note. Further, they are books which shoulder the burden of their gravely difficult content without stumbling. In light of these considerations, perhaps we must confess a bias that begs challenging.
That said, the award of the day really should go to the Nobel committee itself for pulling off a bit of a stunt. They succeeded in being simultaneously progressive and conservative, edgy and drearily establishment. They have, on the one hand, cracked open the whole idea of what constitutes literature – and this is a very good thing as there are many great writers waiting on the margins (In a texting exchange with my friend Nathan yesterday, he asked why there has been such a buzz about a possible win for Svetlana Alexievich while no one is talking about Elena Poneiatowska. As with so many of the authors I hear about from Nathan, I had to google her. I learned that she is a Mexican journalist, winner of the hugely prestigious Cervantes Prize, who has, among her many and lofty credits, a book called La Noche de Tlatelocloco, containing testimonies of the victims of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. Thank you, Nathan, as always.)
So. Good for Stockholm. On the other hand, the choice of Alexievich harkens back to the blandest, most conservative interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s poorly worded will which stipulates that the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In the early years of the award the term “ideal direction” was interpreted to mean something like “edifying”, “uplifting”, “holding to high ideals”. Basically, it was set up to reward literature that was “good for you,” and, by implication, to penalize literature that was, somehow, not. And so, instead of giving the award to Emil Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce, each of whose work was considered in one way or another unwholesome, the award went to writers startling in their mediocrity, like Karl Adolph Gjellerup “for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals”. Over the decades, the interpretation has shifted in various ways. Sometimes it has been taken to mean consonant to the great humanistic project, thereby enabling the committee to honor such worthy writers as Romain Rolland and Boris Pasternak. But however the committee interprets it, they are saddled with the idea of literature being taken in a particular “direction.” It is a hopelessly moralistic project, which, somehow, the very best writers to be honored – Shaw, Faulkner, Mann, Beckett, Marquez, Eliot, and a handful of others – have transcended. Or, conversely, the Swedish Academy itself has occasionally been able to transcended the limitations of Nobel’s will so as to perceive these writers as great artists, ideal or not.
The committee will claim that “idealism” is no longer a concern, that it is an outmoded criterion, and that only the “best” writing is considered. But listen to Permanent Secretary Sara Danius’s post-announcement comments about Svetlana Alexievich. She says that this remarkable writer has been involved in a project of “mapping the Soviet, and post-Soviet, individual,” of writing down “a history of the human being about whom we really didn’t know that much, at least not in this systematic manner,” of documenting “a history of emotions, a history of the soul, if you wish.” These are all extra-literary concerns, all driven by unassailable “ideals.”
I have not yet read Svetlana Alexievich’s books. I have no reason to doubt that she is a significant writer. She certainly seems to be an important one. Perhaps she is even a great one. I look forward to finding out.
In trying to nail down the genesis of my interest in the Nobel Prize, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that that when I was four years old I fell down the stairs. It was my first memorable lesson in the randomness of things. “How could this have happened?” screamed my young consciousness and in that moment I realized something had to be done about an environment disorderly enough to permit such a humiliation. In the interest of personal safety, I adopted various policies, such as refusing to listen to any one of my long-playing records until I had listened to all of them, in order. Take that, ye dark powers! The Swedish Academy often appears to obey some similarly recondite logic; the announcements, and pronouncements, are delivered, against general bewilderment, with bracing assurance, like a child explaining exactly why it is necessary to check for dandelions in his breakfast cereal. They say “This. This one here has made all the difference,” thereby holding at bay, or seeming to, or at least to their own satisfaction, the whole chaotic ocean of contemporary literature. The Nobel Prize is a hedge against a universe where, with a single misstep one can tumble down a never-ending staircase.
There is a character in László Krasznahorkai’s novel Seiobo There Below whose passion for baroque music is so fierce that he can only view the music of any other era as inferior, Mozart and Beethoven notwithstanding. The reader wonders how it came to be that the full scope of music throughout history poses such a threat to his sensibilities that he must set this rigid limitation. Yet we are sympathetic. He’s the kind of person we would be loathed to sit next to on a flight or on the bus, but, from the safe distance of the printed page, we quietly admire his dedication, and, even more, his capacity to love something so much. Besides, we think, the world needs its quota of cranks. But he becomes an object of tragic fascination insofar as he is unable to live alone with this passion. He must share it. Which is to say, he must share the unsharable. He is profoundly overweight, because, we sense, his lone and hermetic yearning swells within him. He gives a lecture in the library of a small town’s cultural center, entitled “A Century and a Half of Heaven”, to an audience of eight elderly men and women. He becomes glassy-eyed as he describes the opening measures of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and a veritable Jonathan Edwards against all whom he considers comers to musical pretensions. His so-called lecture is really more of a rant, impassioned, windy, well-informed yet oddly un-informative, and so incomprehensible to his red-eyed and arthritic audience that the only thing keeping that audience in thrall is it’s collective anxiety about his suspenders. Will they hold? In the end, he leaves the podium, buttons his coat and, with tears in his eyes, walks out the door, saying at the top of his voice, from The Passion, “Mein Jesu, gute Nacht! Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!” He weeps, not for beauty, but because he has failed, as he will always fail, to show that beauty, so personal, so encompassing, to anyone else.
The Nobel Prize often has this quality, minus the pathos, of a private passion publicly shared. Often the winner is literally the obsession of a single member of the committee who plumps for him or her for years. When, late in life, Arthur Lundkvist was offered a place in the Swedish Academy, he accepted, with reservations, largely with the intent of securing the Nobel for an Australian writer hardly anyone in Sweden had even heard of, let alone read. In 1973 he succeeded in wearing his fellow committee members down and Patrick White received the prize.
Like the lecture delivered by Krazhnahorkai’s character, the statements issued following a Nobel announcement tend to be impassioned (in the Scandinavian sense of the word, that is, not in delivery but in the furrow-browed urgency of the content), windy, well-informed yet oddly un-informative. Take, for example, Permanent Secretary Peter Englund’s description of Patrick Modiano: “A Marcel Proust for our time.” Not only does this give no sense at all of the kind of writer Modiano is, it is actually entirely misleading; apart from writing in French, and, alright, treating of memory, his work is nothing at all like Proust’s. In fact, with his short books filled with short, perfect, if rather fazed sentences, Modiano might even be held up as Proust’s antithesis. But there is something touching in the ardency of Englund’s assertion. He clearly admires this writer.
In a couple days a new winner will be announced. What private passion will be put forth as the perfect hedge against all that literature out there, waiting to overwhelm us?
MY SHORTLIST, A HEDGE AGAINST NOTHING:
Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)
There’s a piano in the sand, he thought as he beheld a black and almost geometric thicket behind a bundle of reeds, a piano in the sand circled by gulls and other ocean birds, and his straggly-haired grandmother, wrapped in the wedding dress he had kept in a chest, tapped her arthritic fingers over the caries-riddled keys, stumbling through a children’s lullaby. The low-blowing breeze made the tulle of her veil flutter. There was a dead cat in the sand, nearly covered over by the shore’s stubble. A cloud of huge flies, blue-winged and red-bodied, buzzed around it. The anchored boats lazily shifted their haunches. He stood for a moment, empty-eyed, looking at the rotted animal, then turned and went back to the inn.
from An Explanation of the Birds
Julia Hartwig (Poland)
How to Honor a Place
An inscription announces that the continental divide
between the Pacific and the Atlantic
runs exactly here
A river with its beginning in this region
must think hard
which of the two oceans it should belong to
which mother it acknowledges
in whose gullet it is to be lost forever
and become nameless
How to honor this unique place
with a shout with silence
I am standing over the divide
as if on the back of a bison blinded by the sun
with its legs spread out The rain of waters
flows on both is shining sides
where do I belong
Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—-he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between the grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—-because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely, its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity;
from Seiobo There Below
Javier Marias (Spain)
How could he have spent half his life with a colleague, a close friend — half his childhood, his schooldays, his youth — without having so much as an inkling of his true nature, or, at least, of his possible? (But perhaps any nature is possible in all of us.) How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breath their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?
from, Your Face Tomorrow, vol. I: Fever and Spear
Michel Tournier (France)
February 12, 1938. A woman customer came in to see me. She had her little girl with her, a child of about five or six, who got scolded when they were leaving for trying to shake hands with me with her left hand. It suddenly struck me that in fact most children under seven—the age of reason!—naturally offer to shake hands with the left hand instead of the right. Sanctasimplicitas! They know, in their innocence, that the right hand is soiled by the vilest contacts: that every day it puts itself into the hands of murderers, priests, policemen and politicians as blithely as a whore hops into a rich man’s bed, whereas the humble unobtrusive left hand keeps in the background like a vestal, reserved for sisterly clasps alone. Must remember this lesson and always hold out my left hand to children under seven.
At some point during the writing of Beloved (1987) a daemon gave Toni Morrison the following line: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Only a pedant would see two sentences here. It is one, albeit a rarity, requiring a full stop after the third word to create the frisson after the eighth. “124 was spiteful.” Stop. Your pulse quickens. “Full of a baby’s venom.” Stop. Your stomach drops. A comma simply wouldn’t do. Together, these two phrases comprise a first line equaled for power in American fiction only by “Call me Ishmael.” The book stands solidly behind this opening sally and has been integral to Morrison’s rise to prominence among Melville’s descendants.
Much of Beloved’s greatness inheres in it’s unabashed embrace of large themes. It’s point of departure is a catastrophe of classical concision: An escaped slave slays her infant to save it from re-capture. The baby refuses to accept this fate. The story, radiating both forward and backward from this event becomes, not an inditement of slavery – too banal a subject for an author of Morrison’s intelligence – but a tally of the awful cost of accepting freedom. No one dodges collection, and in the case of Sethe, the mother in question, the price is very nearly too high. The characters who live in the shadow of her tragedy go at their lives like figures leaping from Shakespeare, the Greek stage, or the Hebrew Scriptures. Denver, Sethe’s surviving daughter, deals by never setting foot outside the home, but in the end, like Miranda moored on Prospero’s island, she must discover a brave new world. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, is like Moses, whose faith buoys the multitudes but fails her at the border of the Promised Land. Paul D., Sethe’s mid-life lover, shares with Jonah the inability to escape the imperative of redemption. While Sethe is no Medea, it is hard to ignore a family resemblance; both are mothers in extremis who commit infanticide. And what of Beloved, the slain, the ghost at the heart of this ghost story? She is both terrifying and fragile. She knows something of Electra’s furry at a mother’s betrayal, but behaves like a heartsick vampire, feeding desperately, and so sadly, on her mother’s “too thick” love. Ultimately, she is as empty as Narcissus, a shell animated by the only real haunting power in the novel – the past.
Toni Morrison’s use of language has been called poetic, lyrical, baroque. These descriptors can be misleading as they often bring to mind a torqued, extended, or otherwise heightened syntax which, while not unknown to her, is not a defining trait. I think what readers who invoke these adjectives are responding to is not so much her sentence-by-sentence choices of language as her way of constructing a narrative. At her best, she is wonderfully oblique. Her reader may understand every word but have to ponder just what has been communicated. The result is not confusion, but suspense. Here is Sethe and Denver near the beginning of Beloved after trying, and failing, to reason with the ghost of the infant, as yet only a tantrum-prone shimmer:
“For a baby she throws a powerful spell,” said Denver.
“No more powerful than the way I loved her,” Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I’ll do it for free.
Not to put too fine a point on punctuation, but notice the lack of a comma between “Sethe answered” and “and there it was again.” It is a move as subtle as a film director’s choice in the direction of a pan shot. What follows is a memory. At first we’re not sure of what, but that it doesn’t merit even a comma’s worth of separation from the present tells us that we are mid-stream in a torrent. We try to get our bearings. When we realize that Sethe traded sex with the stonecutter for the carving of the single word, “Beloved”, on the headstone of her infant, the fact that she took time to notice the fingernail pink and glitter of the stone against which she leaned raises our neck hairs. Significantly, the only mention of a grave in this passage is in a stark reversal of the usual implication of parted knees. And the cool of the headstone? It was welcoming? Here we go. For Morrison at her best, style is strategy.
It is a strategy which has made Toni Morrison, at her best, among the most powerful writers in American literature. When she falls short of her best, she still fascinates, if only for the spotlight her misses shine on their own divergence from her hits. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, published in April this year, contains so many elements of her best work it’s like an account sheet of a legacy: Here is the turbulent past acting on the present; a protagonist at war with herself; sex, both destructive and healing; and, sure to delight, the incursion of the supernatural. Everything is set to become a dazzling Morrisonian feast. And by the time the reader comes to the last page – the ingredients have remained ingredients. The master chef, it seems, has lost the courage to cook.
It is the story of a young woman in distress. Bride, born with skin as dark as genetically possible, finds her way through life by measuring the response her striking appearance elicits in others, much as a bat maneuvers by echolocation. Because the genetics of her dramatic coloring are obscure, her light-skinned father assumes the infidelity of her mother and abandons them. Her mother, in thrall to the insidious color ranking system within the black community, is a “high yellow”, and finds her daughter’s “Sudanese black” skin repellent. So much so that she won’t even allow her to call her “mother”, insisting instead on the sobriquet, “Sweetness”.
The defining event of Bride’s early life is a court case against a teacher charged with collaborating in child molestation. Bride (né Lula Ann) is brought in as a key witness. She tells the court what she hopes will elicit love from her unloving mother. The consequence of her choice redounds to the fictional present. Against her mother’s expectations, she grows into a stunning beauty. She rises through the ranks of a cosmetics company and is on the verge of launching her own line, which she calls “YOU, GIRL”. Ironically, she sells her image by wearing no makeup at all, nothing to mute her startling blackness, thereby commodifying the genetics her mother so hated. Like most of Morrison’s protagonists, she is not a thinker, existing by and for her passions. When she can no longer live with the damage caused by her court testimony, she thinks in grade-school equations: she did something bad, so she’ll do something good to cancel it out. When her gesture of what she imagines to be reconciliation is not received as such, she is knocked out. Literally. Around this time she falls for Booker, a sexy drifter with violence in his own past, a peculiarly old-school taste for jazz and trumpet playing, and a penchant for the Western literary canon. She shows a nearly pathological lack of curiosity about him until he leaves her with the words, “You not the woman I want.” In a turn for the bizarre, she begins losing body parts, first ear piercings and pubic hair, then breasts and menstrual cycle. Compounding the strangeness, only she seems to notice.
Physically, Bride, at least when fully assembled, is at home in the company of Morrison’s perennial bombshells. It’s not hard to imagine Sula (Sula), Hagar (Song of Solomon), Jade (Tar Baby) Dorcus (Jazz), Grace (Paradise), Junior (Love), and Bride circling, chewing their cheeks at each other. Spiritually, Bride is not their equal. Even the weakest of these have more pizzaz. Grace, like most of the characters in Paradise, is not memorable, but she inhabits her voluptuousness in a way Bride does not, setting the town of Ruby ablaze with lust and resentment. Junior is almost visionary in her amorality, swinging her hips through the Baby Jane-esque cast of Love, brilliantly self-preserving, seducing even the dead. Bride has no such amplitude.
Superficially, her closest predecessor is Jade from Morrison’s often neglected Tar Baby. Both use their beauty to get ahead in the image industries, Jade as a model, Bride in cosmetics. Disinclined to be revolutionaries, they each believe that the way to access the privileges on the far side of the color divide is to play the white game and win. Here ends the similarity. Jade is by far the more complex character. Her beauty is paired with a restless intelligence. When the handsome and provocative Son disrupts her white-sponsored life, her conflict is fraught, resisting simplistic resolution. She is beggared by the ferocious sexual charge between them, but counters with an equally fierce independence. Does she come to consciousness? Yes. But also no. Which is to say she does what she can, which is what human beings, and masterly characters in novels, do.
By comparison, Bride’s journey, from a rather clichéd obsession with image to the equally clichéd realization that she must learn to love herself, feels sophomoric. The moral swells while the elements of story attenuate. Unlike Jade’s passionately engaged ambition, or Milkman’s (Song of Solomon) leaving behind his proud father to discover his father’s mythic past, or the devastation which Sethe must learn to release, Bride’s materialism lacks a lustiness worthy of the drama of forsaking. To what does she cling? What does she even have? Only her career, which she ditches as thoughtlessly as an empty lipstick tube.
We rarely see her interact with her environment. For that matter, she is barely given an environment to interact with. Morrison moves her characters through a curiously abstracted space. But this is appropriate, given that she is a curiously abstracted character. She seems more to represent than to live. She represents a certain kind of Black response to the American Dream. She represents the plight of children of disturbed and unloving parents. We are told that she is sexual, but the evidence for it within her character is so dilute that it remains a construct, as if Morrison reasoned that this type of character, representing the unexamined American life, often comes with a strong sexual component and so, as a novelist, she should probably refer to it. Even Morrison’s famous language turns leaden here. In a monologue, Morrison has Bride tell us that her own sex life “…became sort of like Diet Coke—deceptively sweet minus nutrition. More like a PlayStation game imitating the safe glee of virtual violence and just as brief.” While it is not a stretch to imagine Bride forgoing an apparently nutritious regular soda in favor of a diet soda, what, really, has she to do with PlayStations? These allusions to niche interests in contemporary American culture fall flat (like an open can of Diet Coke sitting in the sun?) because they have little connection to the character doing the alluding. They have the floundering sound of an author trying to bring her work into an American present with which she is out of touch.
Morrison may have recognized her character’s hollowness. Bride’s curious physical reversion seems like an attempt to at once drum up some physicality for her while adding to the didacticism of the parable. In the past, Morrison has made masterly use of the “magically real”: the marigolds that refused to grow in The Bluest Eye, Circe’s impossible longevity and Pilot’s lack of a navel in Song of Solomon, Sula’s consciousness of her own death, and, of course, Beloved’s haunting. These touches at once startle and seem fundamentally right, even necessary. They evoke spiritual forces with which the characters contend without ever descending to explanation. By contrast, Bride’s loss of her breasts is not so much startling as jarring, an underlined metaphor for her loss of identity, all but italicized in boldface when she herself comes down with “the scary suspicion that she was changing back into a little black girl.” And when, pedantically, her breasts return, the moment is less revelatory than slapstick. A character’s hair catches fire, so Bride whips off her top to smother the flames and discovers her bosoms are back. She has what is for her a moment of complexity: “But it was hard to suppress her glee, even though she was slightly ashamed at dividing her attention between the sad sight of Queen’s slide into the back of the ambulance and the magical return of her flawless breasts.” The word that rings in this rather forced sentence is “flawless”, making the developing human tragedy here come off as a pretext for the return of the tits. It’s hard to quell the suspicion that Morrison is confessing her own “slight shame” at her divided authorial attention.
Much of the second half of the book follows Bride’s search for Booker. His trail leads her from the city to the country. In a monologue, her co-worker and pseudo-friend, Brooklyn, chastises Bride’s cowardice: “But for you it’s ‘Wah, wah, I had to run…’ Where to? In some place where there is no real stationary or even a postcard? Bride, please.” Setting aside the reference to anachronistic writing material by a woman supposedly of the Instagram generation, I found a sympathetic sentiment rising to my own lips, though directed more at the author than the character: The city verses the country? Please. I might have felt differently if the city stood for something less prosaic than the wealth and image Bride had been chasing, or the country the simplicity her life needs to recover balance. But Morrison allows these locales, and their inhabitants, to become, not archetypes, like the neighborhood of “the Bottom” in the wondrous Sula, but stereotypes, right down to the aging Simon-and-Garfunkel-singing off-the-grid hippie couple who take Bride in when she breaks her ankle by crashing her Jaguar into a tree. Is this tongue and cheek? It doesn’t seem so.
A lot has been made of the book’s focus on the sexual abuse of children. But it can’t really be said that the book is about this. Not in the sense that Beloved is about the manifold iterations of slavery and the difficulty of freedom. Child molestation, while heinous beyond words, lacks, as a theme, the philosophical weight of the slavery/freedom dialectic. It resists abstraction, quite rightly, and is therefore ill-suited to metaphor. Despite it’s prominent place in God Help the Child, it lacks urgency, coming across, instead, as bombast. If I didn’t have such respect for Morrison, I would say that she walks a fine moral line in her use of it in this book, for that is what it seems she has done: use it, rather than explore it. Without the weight the subject carries, her characters would float off the page. The shape of their lives is explained solely in terms of the lurid, headline grabbing experiences of their childhoods. Because the line of causation is so clear, so relevant, so unarguable, and because there is so little else to them, they often seem reduced to case studies. And since nearly every character has an occurrence to relate the charge of any single case peters out. This tempts the reader towards detachment, a feeling we are never permitted in The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s overwhelming first novel and first treatment of sexual predation against children. In that book, every breath we take we take with Pecola Breedlove and the pain of it shoots through us.
Let it not be said that God Help the Child is without a sense of outrage. It’s here in spades, to be shared with any reader whose moral compass is in working order. But outrage is not thought, and as an emotion it lacks depth. As in life, feeling outraged by what one reads in a work of fiction can be a distraction, or, worse, a trick: one must think well, mustn’t one, of an opportunity to look squarely and righteously at a hard reality? Therefore this book must surely be a good one.
A technique found throughout the Morrison oeuvre is the monologue. She used it to greatest symphonic effect in Jazz, where the opening voice – is it the author? is it God? is it the pages of the book itself? – both generates and is engendered by all that transpires in the novel. In God Help the Child, the monologue has become an expedience. Why shoulder the burden of furthering the story through telling incident, character interaction and dialogue? Far easier to simply have the characters tell the reader what’s going on with them. Towards the end of the novel, Booker tells us in a monologue:
Bride probably knows more about love than I do. At least she’s willing to figure it out, do something, risk something and take its measure. I risk nothing. I sit on a throne and identify signs of imperfection in others. I’ve been charmed by my own intelligence and the moral positions I’ve taken, along with the insolence that accompanies them. But where is the brilliant research, the enlightening books, the masterpieces I used to dream of producing? Nowhere. Instead I write notes about the shortcomings of others. Easy. So easy.
Except that Morrison has indeed produced masterpieces, Booker here presents the most cogent and concise critique of her as the author of this book.
When Toni Morrison began publishing novels in 1970, she did something few American writers have ever done, either before or since, not even William Faulkner: she produced, out of the gate and in succession, three masterpieces, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). The third belongs to the heritage of world literature. Her forth, Tar Baby (1981) lacks the mythic power of the first three, but is still a fiercely intelligent work with passages of stunning beauty. Then, in 1987, she published a second Everest, Beloved. After this came Jazz (1992), a perplexing, often gorgeous experiment, less approachable than its predecessors, but with sufficient brilliance to make it recognizably from the same original mind. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize. All that she had produced up to then made this a ringer for Stockholm.
Of the five novels she has written since, only one, A Mercy (2008) approaches some of the beauty of those first six. Paradise (1998) is tedious. Love (2003), for all it’s good writing, is airless, humorless, lacking scope. Her two latest novels, Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015) are thin books in every sense. Both scream their hot but circumscribed issues over the weak voices of their characters, more ideograms than personalities. As literary constructions they feel thrown together, as if Morrison filled a file with a certain amount of sketch work then got tired and convinced herself she’d written enough.
What has happened here? How did a great writer become a writer of decidedly minor books? Some critics feel the shift happened as early as Beloved, when she began viewing herself as a spokeswoman more than an author, when addressing issues became more important than writing literature. It is often noted that she has become grand where once she had been brave. Still, what happened? I expose myself as hopelessly outré, I know, by positing the daemon theory. I think she has one, and that it helped her produce an early run of stunning books. It gave her that opening line, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” It made her one of the most revered American authors of the century. But it has now revealed itself as one of those nasty sorts who holds to the busybody notion that all good things must exist in balance. And so this latest book weighs in, and all I can say is God help God Help the Child.
Always the tradeoff: If I’m reading copiously, I have less time to write. In lieu of a proper post, here is a rundown on what I’ve been reading, and a teaser for the posts I hope it will produce.
1. In April Toni Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, will be released. In anticipation, I’ve begun a chronological read-through of her work. This past month I’ve revisited her three early novels: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). Coming to them again after many years, I find I can read them without the distraction of bedazzlement. I already know that, at her best – of which these three are solid representatives – she is among the greatest of American writers. I have also read enough of her over the years to know that she is not always at her best. A Mercy, for example, was stunning, while its successor, Home, was thin. I’m now reading Tar Baby, a novel which I disliked when I read it something like twenty years ago. I’m eager to see how my reading of it has changed over time. After this comes Beloved, among the handful of novels that changed my understanding of what a novel could do to the heart and mind of a reader. Look for further accounts of my survey of her work.
2. One of my favorite authors, Saul Bellow, has his centenary coming up on June 10th. In December I read Herzog for the first time and realized that a first reading of this book is a bit like a first coat of paint on an unprimed wall, no way for one mind to cover what is to be covered here, not in one go. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is next up for me and I can’t wait. I am currently reading his collection of essays, It All Adds Up, and feeling myself in the presence of one of the great, loving, advocates for the modern mind; he wraps a strong and affirming arm around around my intellectual shoulders and says, “You can so go at the world like this.” I’ve read the opening essay on Mozart several times before and every time find its defense of the idea of transcendence positively joyous. More about him for sure!
3. I have long known of the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, but until this month, I had never read him. For Christmas I gave my friend Nathan a copy (in Spanish of course) of his novel El Astillero (The Shipyard) and told him to let me know when he was ready to read it so I could find an English translation and read it with him. Early in February he gave the word. It’s a fairly short book whose pages, I found, seem to multiply as each one is turned. Slow, dense, deeply melancholy, brilliant, handily outstripping the more famous European existentialists in existential sorrow. A few days ago, Nathan texted me from the used bookstore where he works to tell me he had found a copy of another Onetti book, Bodysnatcher, and should he hold it for me. It now sits atop the pile by my bed. From the one book I’ve read so far, and the feel of this next book, I am persuaded that he is one of the great, neglected writers of the the 20th century, fully deserving of a Nobel prize that never arrived for him. He should not be missed.
4. In December I read Naked Masks, a collection of five plays by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, a genius who has never achieved quite the securely canonical standing of, say, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, or Synge. They are grim, funny, brainy, unnerving dramas, which, even after nearly a century show the fringes of the experimental cloth from which they were cut. The most famous is Six Characters In Search of an Author. My favorite is Henry IV. After reading them I found myself wishing with all my heart that I lived in a time and a place where these plays would be performed.
5. I’m hoping this will be the year I complete a reading of the novels of Patrick White. I spent most of January reading his huge, bitter, writhing The Vivisector. It will take me another month or two to catch my breath before moving on to The Eye of the Storm. I’m terribly curious to see the 2011 movie made from this novel by Australian director Fred Schepisi. It stars Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling, and Judy Davis. Twitchy, grisly fun, I expect.
I hope this update persuades you that 2015 promises to be a rich year here at The Stockholm Shelf. Check back soon!
I try to imagine them meeting in Paris: the young Pär Lagerkvist and Gertrude Stein. He, a Swede of peasant stock, shock of blond hair, taciturn not even the word for his humming inwardness. She, agate-eyed, operatic in force and figure, Alice in tow, compelling him to come furrow his Nordic brow at the three Juan Gris paintings she’s just purchased. What an awakening it must have been for him – this woman, this modern art – comparable, perhaps, to his discovery of the work of Charles Darwin while at the gymnasium not so many years earlier. That prior awakening had precipitated, or at least correlated with, a radical turn from the pietistic religion of his parents to an ardent, agnostic socialism. He and a small group of likeminded students would meet on Sunday mornings, as the church bell tolled in the little town of Växjö, in southern Sweden, where he’d grown up, to discuss Thomas Huxley, Flammarion, and Kropotkin. In Paris, he sees, there would have been no need for such statement making. Paris. And this woman! These paintings!
However I try, I can’t quite imagine this meeting, at least not without it coming off as a kind of mental cartoon in need of a caption. Stein, fundamentally large, the Empress of the avant guard, the quintessential American in Paris, seems formed of such different material from the bony young Scandinavian, practically born with intimations of mortality, looking like the mold from which any number of Bergman characters would later be cast. And yet, however unlikely, this meeting apparently happened, or so I read in the introduction to Evening Land, a volume of Lagerkvist’s late poems. I read that the art to which she exposed him – expressionism, cubism, naivism – influenced his early breakthrough in style far more than anything in literature.
Pär Lagerkvist’s life seems to have been haunted by two enormities: God and Death. In his autobiographical novel, Guest of Reality, the principal character is a boy named Anders. Anders is born into a fiercely protestant family in which the Bible is one of the few books in the house. He becomes so obsessed with his fear of death that on a rainy day he takes himself to a flat stone in the forest to pray for the life of each member of his family. After a terrifying vision of a ghost locomotive rushing into the night in a spray of sparks, he comes to believe that the world of his father, in which all things were secure and certain under the certainty of God, was not real, and not his. Instead, “It just hurtled, blazing into the darkness that had no end.”
It would prove to be an irrevocable divide for Pär, this longing for God while watching the very idea of God recede beyond possibility.
If you believe in god and no god exists then your belief is an even greater wonder Then it is really something inconceivably great.
Why should a being lie down there in the darkness crying to someone who does not exist?
Why should that be? There is no one who hears when someone cries in the darkness. But why does that cry exist?
Some of his very first writings were explorations of this divide. In 1912, before Paris, Stein, cubism, he wrote a piece for a Socialist magazine in which he envisioned a young hunter who catches sight of a woman by a spring. The hunter’s feelings are divided: He both yearns for her and wants to withdraw from her. He follows her, keeping himself hidden. When she reappears at the spring, he decides to kiss her, only to discover that, like Narcissus, he has kissed nothing but his own image in the water. He is completely alone. Lagerkvist called this Gudstanken: the idea of God.
The woman, the hunter, and the spring, would reappear four and a half decades later in his novel The Sybil. This time the story is told by the woman. She is the chosen mouthpiece of a mysterious and powerful god. On feast days, pilgrims arrive by the hundreds at the temple with requests for prophecy. She enters a drug-induced trance during which the voice of the god erupts from her in inchoate shrieks and groans, which the priests then interpret. It becomes evident to her that they interpret in such a way as will benefit themselves and the economy of the town. She becomes a prophetess without faith. One day, walking through the woods, she arrives at a spring. She finds there a beautiful young man. Instead of a hunter, he is a one-armed soldier, and this time they meet, and fall in love. Their love becomes a god in which she can believe. When she becomes pregnant, she is expelled from the temple and banished forever from the town. The soldier, who had ceased loving her after witnessing her orgiastic convulsions at the temple, is discovered dead in a nearby stream. The child she bears grows up to be helpless and mute, forever an infant. In the end, he too leaves her, vanishing into the snowy peaks. And so she looses, at the same time, both a god of power and a god of love, and is left with what, at best, could be called a god of absence, and at worst, malevolence. But the god she longs for —that god does not exist.
For Lagerkvist, this divide, this longing for a nonexistent god, would itself become a kind of faith, if one accepts Paul Tillich’s term for faith as ultimate concern. “I am a believer without a faith,” he wrote, “a religious atheist. I understand Gethsemane, but not the jubilation over the victory.” But his work would show that he did have a kind of faith, a faith in the longing itself, as indicated by that subtly ecstatic final question of his poem, “But why, does that cry exist?” The asking belies a love that it does.
Recently, I re-read Barabbas, the novel by which, if by any, Lagerkvist is generally known to readers in English. It is his imagining of the life of the world’s most famous bailed criminal. Beginning with his uncomprehending witness of the crucifixion, it traces his journey, not to faith, but near it, and into the ultimate, inscrutable dark. I found myself perplexed by Lagerkvist’s simple, almost naive, approach to the writing of this tale, wondering how he achieved such formidable drama. I think it is because of his love for that cry. It is the cry of one divided. In Lagerkvist’s vision, Barabbas, the man who cannot believe, burns with the greatest passion of all for God, or an idea of God to sustain him. That he never finds it is, paradoxically, his final grace; what would he have become if he had become, at last, peaceful? His eventual death at the hands of the Romans would, in the end, have had no more significance than that of any of the assured believers around him. Instead, he pays, by choice, the ultimate price for a God in whom he longs to believe but doesn’t, with no one to hear his “cries in the darkness.”
May my heart’s disquiet never vanish. May I never be at peace. May I never be reconciled to life, nor to death either. May my path be unending, with death its unknowable goal.
Fascinated, I read in quick succession The Sybil and The Dwarf, and found in each, as in Barabbas, a captivating protagonist, each different from the others in every way, save for an un-ironic seriousness through which they engage their ironic worlds. Each longs for God, or a stand-in for God, and fails to find either.
I wanted to know more. I had not known that Lagerkvist was a playwright, apparently a great one, considered the successor of Ibsen and Strindberg. Nor that he was one of a small handful of poets to bring Swedish poetry into the modern era. For a little over a week now I’ve had by my side Evening Land (Aftonland), his final collection of poems, published in 1953, and happily translated by W. H. Auden. I find in them a voice so potent I am amazed to have never come across his poetry before. He appears in none of my anthologies. Surely, he is no Tranströmer, lacking the later poet’s power of image and, what? levitation? But I now understand how Tranströmer would not have been Tranströmer without Lagerkvist.
One poem stopped me cold. It may be among the greatest statements of faith I have read by a modern poet:
I wanted to know but was only allowed to ask, I wanted light but was only allowed to burn I demanded the ineffable but was only allowed to live.
I complained, but nobody understood what I meant.
To ask. To burn. To live. This, in the end is all one is permitted. It is not, as it nearly sounds, an Eastern approach to enlightenment, for the payoff is patently not equanimity. The revelation here is that one must do these things with or without one to accompany.
I think that for Pär Lagerkvist, turning from God to Darwin, then to Picasso and Braque, was never really a turn from God in the first place, but rather a turning towards his own longing. I have no idea what kind of encounter he had with Gertrude Stein, or if there was any ensuing connection between them. But he must have seen in her another who, though she may never have said so, was, like him, longing for God. For what is the thirst for art and the far reaches of language if not a demand for the ineffable?