THE TROLLEY: Claude Simon’s Elegiac Artifice

FullSizeRender-6The American composer and voluminous diarist, Ned Rorem, made the following entry in his Nantucket Diary, dated 17 October, 1985:

“When it comes to prizes there is no right choice, although with hindsight every choice can seem inevitable. Most witnesses are uncomfortable, especially the losers, and even the Nobel Prize is a raffle. In honoring Claude Simon the Nobelists now show themselves to admire the trend of form over content which has been festering in all French art for three decades, and which at its most extreme becomes the very definition of decadence. It makes me sad. If they had to choose a Frenchman, why not Simenon?”

In the previous entry Rorem recounts a discussion with a friend about the pleasures of the prolific Georges Simenon, known for his hugely popular detective novels. Positing Simenon (who, for the record, was Belgian) as a Nobel contender is clearly intended to be cute. Simple fun, perhaps, with the closeness of the names. But Rorem’s real subject here is the commonplace that institutions which bestow awards have biases which can make their choices perplexing to those who don’t share them. The Nobel Committee has been coy about a wide range of them over its 113 years. Certainly this year’s award, to Patrick Modiano, another Frenchman, raises again this by now rather tired problem which, any more, is good for an easy, if not terribly interesting, diary entry. But when Rorem blithely tosses an author like Claude Simon onto the apparent trash heap of the whole post-World War Two French artistic enterprise, it smacks of posing.

First of all, I’m not exactly sure who he’s lumping Simon with. Perhaps he had in mind the painter Yves Klein, who instructed beautiful nude women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll around on his canvases. As a composer, he could be thinking of Pierre Boulez whose Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) pits hyper-serialization against improvisation, at the expense of the uninitiated listener. Writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau, founder of the influential literary movement Oulipo, and Modiano’s acknowledged mentor, was at work in “all of French art” at the time; his Exercices de Style tells one story – a man runs into a stranger twice on the same day – in 99 different ways. And then there is cinema. The Nouvelle Vague. Really, Mr. Rorem?

No one could argue that form wasn’t a primary concern for these French artists. But, on that account, to dismiss them and their work out of hand, and a rather high one at that, is careless. It ignores the water in which these fish were swimming. In a world new to the idea of total annihilation by human initiative, a world forever to be haunted by Auschwitz, and a country which, “for the sake of form”, had been cravenly complicit with real and evident evil, and which, as if in response to its own shame, was narcotizing on the vestiges of empire (Algeria), a broken capitalism, and an increasingly indulgent consumerism, form was of the essence. As the students of May, 1968, knew, the forms were broken. Fervid formal experimentation, far from being a sign of decay, was the only morally viable artistic response. Form was the content. To a certain extent, it always had been, but never before had this been so widely understood. Unless it be, perhaps, in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s, in which case Mr. Rorem might wish to be mindful of which side of the argument he pursues.

If formal experimentation in art were a crime, Claude Simon would certainly have been charged, convicted and sentenced. He is usually associated with a group of French novelists writing in the decades after the Second World War known as the nouveaux romanciers. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Natalie Sarraute, and especially Margurite Duras are more familiar names to readers in English, even though Simon was the only one of this loose fellowship to garner a Nobel. There are more differences than similarities among them, but they shared the common cause of attempting to transcend the received nineteenth century parameters of fiction, such as the centrality of plot, setting, character, and motivation. As with Boulez’s music, their books can seem difficult to the uninitiated. At its best, their writing can be starkly, startlingly beautiful, if, unavoidably, cerebral.

Claude Simon’s gorgeous final novel, The Trolley (2001), published when he was eighty eight, is all of these, and something more —it is haunting. To open this book is to find time splintering. On one page we read the impressions, or memories of impressions, of a young boy growing up in a coastal town in France, just after the First World War. On the next, an old man, presumably the same boy now in a stare-down with the end of his life, gives a somber, almost hallucinatory account of time spent in a modern hospital. A beginning and an ending, between which yawns an immense lacuna —the life lived. The novel is slim, where we feel it should, by rights, be long.

To speak of its form: The Trolley belongs to a sub-species of novel which doesn’t seem to be a novel at all. Memoir, meditation, travelogue, history, essay — these can seem more apt designations. It is in good company. W. G. Sebald, for example, in The Rings of Saturn, his grand investigation of entropy and loss, casts a wide net, gathering into his narrative hull the writings of the 17th century doctor Thomas Browne, the silk worms of the Chinese imperial court, and the personal lives of historical figures such as Roger Casement and Charles Algernon Swindburne. The narrator seems to be the author himself, and what he shares of himself has the ring of of autobiography. The photographs, grainy, melancholy, distributed throughout the pages contribute to the impression of a documentary, rather than fictive reality. But this itself is it’s fiction. J. M. Coetzee’s Summer Time is written as a biography of a writer named John Coetzee, whose salient distinction from the author himself is that he is deceased. Among the strangest and most brilliant recent examples of this kind of un-novel is Australian novelist Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, in which a subtle and poignant portrait of the artist emerges from a close examination of the unwritten lives of characters from his life in reading, and even from his own books.

In The Trolley, objects, scenes, episodes, and characters are observed, often at dauntingly close range, but are never manipulated through a plot. Which is not to say there is no story, but it is a story the reader constructs. For example, we are shown a garden with an iris border. It is an old, established garden with full-grown trees. It belongs to the narrator’s aunt and uncle on his father’s side, the family to whom he and his mother came after his father was, we infer, killed in the War. We are shown his mother lying on a chaise longue in this garden. She is sick. Later, we are shown the same garden, the same chaise longue, minus his mother. No plot here, but, most assuredly, a story. Even a cursory perusal of Claude Simon’s biography makes it apparent that this story is, or in every important way seems to be, his own.

Contrary to Simon’s reputation as a “difficult” writer, the writing here is not difficult. True, one has need of a healthy attention span to track with his immense, drifting sentences, but the language with which he fills these sentences attains a luminous, sometimes distressing, clarity. For example, we might almost wish for a filter through which to read his memory of the dour maid who tended his dying mother:

That same long Erinye’s face permanently stamped with an expression of outrage which she seemed never to leave off, whether caring for Maman with a sort of fierce tenderness or (suddenly appearing in the dim kitchen, leaning over the flickering glow of the flames) contemplating the torments of those rats she was burning alive (which, reported by the children, was strictly forbidden — despite which (but without witnesses) she doubtless continued doing), or again, still outraged and inflexible for all our pleading and tears, killing one after the other the kittens of her cat’s incessant litters, flinging them violently against the courtyard wall, picking up the tiny sticky balls of bloody hair if they still moved, flinging them against the wall again and then dumping them on the compost heap out of a basket which she then rinsed several times until there was no trace of blood left in it.

For all the violence here, it is that rinsing of the basket that most horrifies. Her tidying up, washing away all traces of the act, renders banal the preceding brutality, something brutality should never be. And it has the added effect of making this intimate horror echo against the great monuments of horror rising from a horrific century.

It is this kind of detail, banal on the surface, with which the book abounds. The novel’s opening paragraph, for example, begins with a close observation of the streetcar which the narrator road, as a boy, between school and the seaside community of tawdry mansions where his aunt and uncle lived. So close is this observation, in fact, that what we actually see first, without knowing quite what we’re looking at, is the dial in the streetcar’s cab. The “lens” pulls back to reveal the accelerator lever to which the needle corresponds, then further to encompass, not the hand, but the palm of the hand of the conductor managing the lever. Toward the end of the paragraph we are told that most of the varnish has worn off the handle of this lever, leaving the wood unprotected, and we begin to wonder how long this can go on. In the hands of a lesser writer, such grinding accumulation could quickly sink to indulgence. But the effect here is more akin to looking through a kind of personal Hubble telescope, not into the knowable universe, but the author’s own “deep field”. The image of the galaxies in that now famous dime-sized patch of sky confronts us with the sober knowledge that what we can directly experience of the universe approaches a statistical zero, and even that zero is revoked at death. This is the sensibility with which Simon presents the streetcar lever and its varnishless handle. “This existed”, he’s telling us – his urgency shimmers – as if trying to make a record of everything, knowing that, even late in his ninth decade, “everything” won’t, finally, be very much.

Death is a constant in this book, the rats and kittens being a stand-in for death on a larger scale, rarely seen but always in the offing. His father’s death precedes the narrative, and, though barely mentioned, is generative of all that follows. There are the physically and psychically decimated survivors of the War who, besides aimlessly pedaling go-carts around a stone monument at the town center, intensify the loss of those, perhaps luckier, who, like Simon’s father, didn’t survive. His mother’s death, alluded to rather than recounted, changes everything again.

But it is his proximity to his own death that provides the most salient structural element in the novel. The perpetual incursion of one time frame into another is a characteristic feature in all of Simon’s writing. In this case, his hospitalization late in life continually interrupts the narrative of his childhood. These incursions make up for what drama is lost by his eschewal of the more traditional buildup of tension through plot. For example, a memory from his boyhood, in which he is running to catch the trolley after school, follows on the heals of an episode in the modern emergency room to which he has been transported by ambulance, “a sort of coffin”; so when we see him breathlessly watching the missed trolley disappear around a corner, we already know that, in something like seven decades, there will be one very important ride he will not miss, and both scenes acquire a luminosity they would not otherwise achieve, and the metaphor of the trolley, carrying its passengers across the length of its finite line, comes into its own without ever a moment of underlining. The weight of this slim book owes, not to novelistic expansiveness, but to this kind of juxtaposition.

Another of Simon’s favorite techniques is the recurring image. In The Flander’s Road it is the half buried carcass of a horse. In The Grass it is a T of light cast through half-closed shutters onto an interior wall of a dying woman’s room. In The Trolley it is a woman on a hospital bed whom the narrator glimpses lying in the room opposite his. These images often hold a paradox. The horse, for example, is in an advanced stage of decomposition and buried in mud in spite of the fact that it can only have been dead about three, completely rainless, days. The paradox presented by the hospitalized woman is that her thick, well-kept blond hair, rosy complexion, and comparative youth don’t square with her lifeless, mask-like face. Not one to look for meaning, the narrator must, nonetheless, look for something, and so he looks for parallels. In her final appearance, she is on a bed designed to transport patients being wheeled away by two male nurses while the other patients on the ward look on. He sees in this somber procession a parallel to the parading of a saint’s effigy on a litter during a religious holiday. Then, at more length, he recalls witnessing a funeral procession in Benares, in which the cadaver, laid out on a litter, was borne, above a crowd of mourners, on the shoulders of two muscular men to the banks of the Ganges to be burned. He makes these parallels more or less explicit simply by their proximity to the image of the blond woman. More subtle is the parallel to his own mother’s face as she lies, slowly dying, on the chaise longue in his aunt and uncle’s garden. The two images, which never touch within the pages of the novel, call to each other, drawing the novel’s two dominant time frames into association. They orbit one another.

MOI1986013W00003-19

Claude Simon (1913-2005) won the Nobel Prize in 1985.

Reading The Trolley, one is aware of reading, not so much a novel, as an approach to the novel. This, in Rorem’s view, is what makes Simon, or artists like him, decadent. He clearly has in mind the word’s common implication of moral decline. But, as an aesthetic, all it really means is a preference for artifice over nature. In other words, the artist is happy to let you know he or she is up to something. There is a widespread, righteous criticism that praises the “artless”, the work in which the artist brilliantly hides or disguises all his scaffolding, so that the one receiving the work forgets that he or she is in the presence of a work of art at all. There are many pleasures in this approach. Marilynne Robinson writes like this, never calling attention to the weapon with which she quietly slays her readers. But there are equally great pleasures in the works of artists who want you to know that what they are making is art. Imagine a crestfallen Virginia Woolf whose readers never recognized that To The Lighthouse had significantly extended the reach of the form. I remember, as a twenty-year-old, reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, then saying to a friend, my age but wiser, “But people don’t really talk like that to one another.” To which he replied, “But, perhaps they should.”

Simon’s artifice laid bare the artifice readers had been accepting, unchallenged, for more than a century (Simon himself pointed out that such readers had apparently missed Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner). In The Trolley, the shifting time frames, the fragmentary presentation of memories and impressions, the protracted sentences, all make off with the reader’s habitual question, “what happens next?”. With causality out of the picture, the reader is invited to consider how else the presented elements of the narrator’s life might be related. This amounts to a deeper way of reading. One pauses at the spaces where, like in poetry, the frisson happens. This is not a matter of form over content. It’s a different kind of content.

claude_simon

French Novelist Patrick Modiano Wins the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

MODIANOPatrick

Patrick Modiano, 2014 Nobel Laureate

Almost as good as when those crazy Swedes choose to honor one of my cherished writers is when they choose to honor someone I’ve never heard of. Ignorance becomes a virtue, or nearly, just to have that moment when it gets broken. There is, to be sure, that brief feeling of letdown. No Philip Roth (surprise surprise). No Péter Nádas or Salman Rushdie. But now, Patrick Modiano. A French author honored so soon on the heals of J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008) and while the great Michel Tournier is still living. Interesting. Why him?

Americans will get a lot of mileage out of this one. Our favorite cultural pass time is getting grass stains sliding around on the triumph/resentment field: When one of us is acknowledged we give a fist pump of arrival, masking with bravado our secret surprise that we indeed have what it takes, while when someone from the wider world – which over and over turns out to be much wider – is acknowledged, we feel snubbed, and fall to denigrating the institution giving the honor. Our favorite epithet for the Swedish Academy and their Nobel Committee is that they are “snobbish”. As if they’ve cornered the market on snobbishness. One way or another, they clearly have it in for us, or so we whine, seeing as how the last of our eight Nobel Prizes (not counting those won by emigres) was awarded clear back in 1992 (Go Toni Morrison!). It’s hard to imagine the same foul-calling going on in, say, Spain, which has only won five Nobels and none since 1989, where 83-year-old Juan Goytisolo and 63-year-old Javier Marias have for decades been card-carrying members of the literary giant’s club.

There was, of course, Horace Engdahl’s famous dismissal of American literature in 2008, in which he pronounced it “too isolated, too insular,” and said, rather priggishly, that Europe was “the centre of the literary world.” But I’m not convinced that his archly supercilious comment, which, in the end, he resigned over, points to quite the entrenched anti-American conspiracy that commentators made out. Is the significance of Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro, Herta Müller, and José Saramago really only that they are chess pieces for blocking the American drama queen, Philip Roth? And let’s say it’s true – and it certainly could be – that the Swedish Academy has a bias against American literature and literary taste, isn’t it still just a wee bit grandiose of us to think that this is a worse bias than any other they might have?

I, for one, am looking forward to discovering Patrick Modiano’s books. Peter Englund says I could easily read one of them in the afternoon, have dinner, and read another in the evening.

 

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Shortlist

image

Bloopers loves books so much!

WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE MEAN TO READ

A few years ago I mentioned to a good friend of mine who is a writer that I have never read Midnight’s Children. He didn’t say anything, but it was the kind of not-saying-anything with beats to it. I would say a full eight bars. “I’ve been meaning read it,” I assured him, as his silence began a second phrase, “I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

Like most readers, I hold in mind a list of books I’ve been meaning to read. It’s a list which includes books I almost certainly will actually read, but also others, many others, which, to the end, I will only ever mean to read. Which is to say, my list is a hedge against mortality. Such lists always are. It is defensive in other ways too: to say I mean to read a certain book – Emma, for instance – salves the moral sting of not having read it. That it is an ever-expanding list paradoxically marks the rise in my sins of omission while shoring up my sense of rectitude; surely knowing what I lack mitigates the lacking.

Though equally unread, not all books I mean to read are equal; some glower from a higher shelf – it seems correct to say that my not having read Don Quixote is a more serious omission than not having read Midnight’s Children – while others have partisans. For example, I distinctly hear Harold Bloom Jewish mothering me for allowing my Shakespeare read-through to stall after Richard III. (“If you can bear living without the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, well then go right ahead. Who am I to say? Clearly nobody ‘t all.” “But Harold. I read it in high school. And I’ve seen the Zeffirelli, and even Leonardo DiCaprio.” “I’m just saying.”) Susan Sontag has been hectoring me from beyond the grave to read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. You know, the 19th century Brazilian novelist. My friend Nathan is concerned that I haven’t read more of the daftly brilliant little novels of César Aira. I, absolutely, mean to read them all. Pax, everyone.

In the wake of Nadine Gordimer’s death, my failure to have read Midnight’s Children began to afflict me, like a cramp, or hunger. As I sifted through material about her, Rushdie’s name kept popping up. As would be expected, she had been among his defenders during the years of the fatwa. In her Nobel lecture, she asserted that “he has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Günter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years, perhaps even has tried to approach what Beckett did for our existential anguish in Waiting For Godot[.]” (Who doesn’t love a healthy flirtation with hyperbole, especially when it may prove to be (a) not a flirtation, or (b) not hyperbole.) In 2005, novels by both Gordimer and Rushdie were among the six nominees for the “Best of the Booker”, a one-time award given for the single best novel to have been awarded a Booker Prize in the award’s forty-year history. Gordimer was represented by The Conservationist, Rushdie by Midnight’s Children. Rushdie won.

Enough. It was time to leave off meaning to read Midnight’s Children and actually crack the cover. At the time of this writing, I’m about a third of the way through, and can say, unequivocally, it is one of the best thirds of a novel I’ve ever read. I recognize this species of delight; it attended my reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. The Adventures of Augie March also, and, oh yes, A House for Mr. Biswas. The sheer vigor and complexity of this third-of-a-novel disposes me to make a chain of assumptions: 1. that the second two thirds will match the first, 2. that, as expert testimony has it, The Satanic Verses at the very least equals it, and, 3. that the rest of Rushdie’s oeuvre, if not, perhaps, on the same Parnassian level, bears similar markings of genius. All of which leads me to wonder about the hold-up in Stockholm.

There is, to be sure, a logjam of great writers waiting to be laureled. But, as time slips by and Rushdie remains uninvited to Stockholm’s annual highbrow powwow, the Swedish Academy comes ever closer to committing another of its stinkers. There will be much to answer for if they allow him to go the way of Carlos Fuentes, W. G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps he is on their own list –of writers they are meaning to honor.

 

MY SHORTLIST

In addition to Salman Rushdie, my 2014 shortlist of Nobelable writers includes three other novelists and a poet. A more stunning group of writers you will never find. Read these experts. Listen, as you read, to how the grief and splendor of living rushes from their words in a spiritual torrent which would wash most of us away if channeled through our own faculties. Listen to how Algerian novelist Assia Djebar evokes the inner life of a “woman of the veil” who has just learned that her husband, a rebel in the Algerian War for Independence, is in grave danger, and chooses to surmount all the prohibitions of her society in order to find and warn him. Australian poet Les Murray is famously querulous, but listen to how in “A Dog’s Elegy” he grows tender, wittily mystical, disarming with image and verbal delight his reader’s defenses against the enormity of death. Listen carefully to Péter Nádas‘s narrator – young, bisexual, Hungarian, hyper-aware – and you’ll hear, in his account of learning to communicate with a young German poet with whom he is in love, the catastrophe of modern Hungary. Listen to Philip Roth, the American perennial, in one of his sublime rants which, as always with him, transcends that descriptor by saying something so heartbreakingly true about human nature that, for all it’s clattering expansiveness, it comes off like Shakespeare. And Salman Rushdie. Listen to him. Am I wrong?

 

djebar_432

“Small things come in big packages.” —Assia Djebar (b. 1936)

1. Assia Djebar (Algeria)

She’d forgotten the danger itself. In truth, it’s perhaps not that which drove her, but rather a gnawing desire to suddenly know whether she could really spend her life waiting in her room, in patience and love. That’s why she crossed the entire town, bared her presence to so many hostile eyes, and at the end of her trek discovered that she was not only a prey for the curiosity of men — a passing shape, the mystery of the veil accosted by the first glance, a fascinating weakness that ends up being hated and spat upon — no, she now knows that she existed. She’s been inhabited by one inflexible thought that has made her untouchable. “Get to Youssef! He’s in danger,” she had repeated. “But is he, really?” she ended up wondering when she found herself alone on the curb surrendering to, or even beyond, the same fruitless waiting. “Won’t he first of all be shocked to see me here, out in the street?” No, the danger is real.

(Children of the New World)

 

les-murray-20140607-1512_5274

”Some people are born to fatness. Others have to get there.” —Les Murray (b. 1938)

2. Les Murray (Australia)

A Dog’s Elegy

The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
to make speech-like sounds to his humans
lies buried in the soil of a slope
that he’d tear down on his barking runs.

He hated thunder and gunshot
and would charge off to restrain them.
A city dog too alive for backyards,
we took him from the pound’s Green Dream

but now his human name melts off him;
he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
the coral tree and the African tulip
will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.

Our longhaired cat who mistook him
for an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
and teetered in top twigs for eight days
as a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.

The cattle suspect the Dog lives
but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
eared gazing wigwams of fur.

(Conscious and Verbal)

 

nadas-bspec

“By fantasizing one builds a more predictable world, and then one has no time to notice what is really happening, because of the din made by one’s expectations crashing down.” — Péter Nádas (b. 1942)

3. Péter Nádas (Hungary)

But as he listened to me, a radically different process was also taking place in him: as usual, he kept correcting my grammatically faulty sentences, he did this almost unawares, it had become an unconscious habit between us; in fact, he was the one who shaped my sentences, gave them the proper structure, incorporated them into the neat order of his native language, I had to rely on his expropriated sentences to work my way through my linguistic rubble, had to use his sentences to tell my story, and didn’t even notice that some of these jointly produced sentences were repeated two or three times, their place and value reshuffled, before reaching intelligible form.

It was as if I had to use my own past to coax the story of his past out of him. I didn’t think of it then, but now I believe we needed these evening walks not just for the exercise but to relate to the world around us — which we both felt, though for different reasons, to be cheerless and alien — and to do it in a way that this same world would not be aware of what we were doing.

(A Book of Memories)

 

philip-roth-bench-1010-lg

“I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” —Philip Roth (b. 1933)

4. Philip Roth (United States)

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.

(American Pastoral)

 

salman rushdie

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” —Salman Rushdie (b. 1947)

5. Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)

Why had she married him?—For solace, for children, But at first the insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don’t always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an undreamable poet’s face and waking with an unspeakable name on her lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: “You big ungrateful goof, can’t you see who is your husband now? Don’t you know what a husband deserves?” To avoid fruitless controversy about the answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother’s opinion, a husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love. But there was a difficulty: Amina, her mind clogged up with Nadir Khan and his insomnia, found she couldn’t naturally provide Ahmed Sinai with these things. And so, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents, because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit.

(Midnight’s Children)

 

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded soon. Share with us, here at The Shelf: Who do you think will win? (My bets are on Assia Djebar this year.) Who do you think should win?

In Memoriam: Nadine Gordimer — who subversively wrote as well as she could

image

Nadine Gordimer 1923 – 2014

In repressive regimes everywhere – whether in what was the Soviet block, Latin America, Africa, China – most imprisoned writers have been shut away for their activities as citizens striving for liberation against the oppression of the general society to which they belong. Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.

- from the Nobel Lecture: “Writing and Being”

In an autobiographical essay published in the New Yorker in 1954, Nadine Gordimer described a hill rising from the veld on the outskirts of her home town near Johannesburg, barren save for patches of sparse grass through which showed a blackness “even a little blueness, the way black hair shines”. The hill was a coal dump, so old as to be covered by a layer of blown earth. “Diabolical”, she called it, “forsaken”, and – her best word – “inert”, for at some point, no one knew when, this remnant of a long abandoned coal mine had caught fire, and the slow, low burning had continued, hidden beneath its top layers, day and night, for many years. She recalled the surrounding earth feeling warm beneath her feet. She remembered seeing the glow at dusk in the bald patches where grass would not grow. She knew a girl who had been horribly disfigured from burns sustained while playing on the hill. Her mother remembered a boy who had been buried in a landslide and not even his bones had been found. On one side of the coal dump was the outer edge of town, the “location”, where the blacks lived. Further from the dump, in the direction of the town center, were the neighborhoods of what she described as “our sedate little colonial tribe, with its ritual tea parties and tennis parties.” On the other side was the local nursing home which served also as a hospital and clinic, where her mother spent many long days.

It’s a striking image, this smoldering hill, though susceptible to portentousness. Even a very good writer of lesser gifts might have worried it toward the gothic. Gordimer doesn’t interfere with it, pretending there is nothing deliberate about it’s inclusion in her narrative, calling it no more than a memory, one among many which occurred to her in the course of writing. Attuned, as she writes in her Nobel lecture, “to the state of being manifest in life around her”, she knows this Hades-like image is organic to her theme and will pay its own way. The title of the essay is “A South African Childhood: Allusions in a Landscape”. A reader with even cursory awareness knows full well what that mountain of hidden burning alludes to —in South Africa.

When she wrote this, the great novels, The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter, July’s People, A Sport of Nature, were still to come.

imageWhile the tributes which have flooded the internet and news publications in the past two weeks all get around to acknowledging what a towering writer she was, it was her activism that tends to make the headlines and to frame whatever else is said of her. The value claimed for her novels and stories, as good as they are, is largely extra-literary. She is routinely revered as a kind of warrior writer who courageously laid bare the viciousness of apartheid. Arguably the highest compliment she was ever paid came from the South African government, years before the Nobel, when it banned three of her books. It is put forth as as a testament to her greatness that she was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see upon release from prison. “But she was a writer first,” the articles protest, then back up what should be self-evident with examples of her post-apartheid subject matter and her vigorous contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. With intentions to the contrary, her life often comes off sounding like a kind of bourgeois parable illustrating that one can still find fulfillment in life’s third act, even after everything has changed. Imagine Samuel Beckett requiring such a defense.

imageSusan Sontag issued a corrective to this view of her in 2004 in the inaugural Nadine Gordimer Lecture, the last speech she ever gave: “But of course, the primary task of a writer is to write well (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) In the end — that is to say, from the point of view of literature — Nadine Gordimer is not representative of anybody or anything but herself. That, and the noble cause of literature. Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.” In a kind of relay race among literary insiders, Sontag took her declaration that a writer’s primary task is to write well from Gordimer’s Nobel lecture in which she, in turn attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez the belief that “The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.” (His actual words, spoken to a journalist friend, were “In reality the duty of a writer — the revolutionary duty, if you like — is that of writing well.” The implication of each is slightly different, but holds to the idea that writing is a moral act.)

A great writer is like a thief, stealing from the treasury of the world’s wordless and recondite state of being more meaning for her words than is their legal due. Among living writers, Alice Munro is one of the most light-fingered, stashing more significance into the hidden pockets of her pokerfaced sentences than most writers acquire by honest means in the space of a paragraph. Gordimer was like this. She was more cerebral by half than Munro. She was more at home with artifice – Toni Morrison is a closer relative in this regard – taking occasional well-judged flights from realism. For example, Munro would never write a story in the form of an answer to Franz Kafka’s famous “Letter to His Father” from the father himself, one deceased to another. Nor would she gather Susan Sontag, Edward Said, and Anthony Sampson, all of them dead, for colloquy at a Chinese restaurant. But like Munro she could smuggle a mother lode of emotional impact and intellectual weight right under her readers’ noses and deposit her hoard on the page. Listen to how she packs away a startling wealth into this unassuming description of a two-room township house in her story “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living”:

The front door of the house itself opens into a room that has been subdivided by greenish brocade curtains whose colour had faded and embossed pattern worn off before they were discarded in another kind of house.

First off, a subdivided room was, by definition, once whole. That someone decided on this make-do solution makes the brocade curtains a comedown even before we learn they are faded and worn. They’re not green, mind you, but “greenish”. Of course they are second hand, who would do this with something nice? But it’s that ending, “discarded in another kind of house”, that makes you realize what she’s pulled on you after its far too late to man your defenses. What kind of house? The least that can be said is that it was one in which brocade curtains could be discarded. Like the smoldering coal dump haunting the edges of her childhood, the almost off-handed pitting of a township house with its second-hand dividing curtains against “another kind of house”, without ever mentioning the dynamics between blacks and whites in a society hideously deformed by apartheid, lends an emotional impact anything more explicit would subvert. In the span of a phrase, it becomes that kind of story.

A sentence like this functions as a hologram, not only of the story itself, but, of the mind of it’s writer. Gordimer thought more, and more complexly, about the world she observed than most of us could ever hope to. But, as can happen with genius, the complexity of her mind occasionally ran away with her capacity to make it’s products syntactically approachable. In this passage from her meditation on the craft of writing, “The Dwelling Place of Words” (2001), we hear her thoughts chasing each other into a logjam of a sentence:

And in the increasing interconsciousness, the realization that what happens somewhere in the world is just one manifestation of what is happening subliminally or going to happen in one way or another, affect in one way or another, everywhere – the epic of emigration, immigration, the world-wandering of new refugees and exiles, political and economic, for example – is a fatal linkage, not ‘fatal’ in the deathly sense, but in that of inescapable awareness in the writer.

It all makes perfect sense on about the third pass. All clauses are resolved, all modifiers firmly attached, indeed all the requirements of an English sentence are fulfilled, but the reader has nonetheless endured a moment of terror, sure he’s made a fatal turn in the labyrinth and will not escape. But what the reader gets, even on a first pass, is a kind of urgency, an imperative  that he be given a full account of what is important. We hear the shameful secrets of the times, the pressures and distortions of society weighing on her moral sensibility, and there is so much to say about it. If she could stack the words on top of each other she would.

imageIn 2006 a biography came out which purported to tell the truth about Nadine Gordimer. It was a biography she had authorized. And then rescinded, going so far as to block its US release. The hypocrisy of a white liberal woman, her unconscious racism, an affair – these were some of its haul, confiscated, supposedly, from the iconic status of its subject. Among the biographer’s claims was that certain elements of the essay “A South African Childhood” had been fabricated. And so a seed of doubt is planted: is the subterranean smolder of the coal dump in a land on the edge of igniting factual, or a storyteller’s invention? And, more at issue, is this important? It seems to me that serious readers, by this late date, are grown up enough to know better than to troll autobiography for facts. What kind of reader would turn to, say, Garcia Marquez, for a balanced reckoning? This does not evade the question. Only, how one feels about the answer, disillusioned, vindicated, or more or less unaffected, will depend on what one is reading for, news about the horse from the horse’s mouth, or a brilliant and complex woman’s passionate engagement with her subject and it’s telling.

On Why I Haven’t Posted Anything for Two Months

Most important in all of life to honor what we’re drawn to. To honor the being drawn. Food, books, sex, a hermit’s life, whatever it might be, we can measure the shriveling of our spirits against the scope of our self-denials. And so, because I’ve never been able to stop picking at the plate of Christianity served to me at birth, even as my taste for belief has waned, I went on pilgrimage.

I spent the last two weeks of May in the UK, stalking Christianity from the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides to the tidal island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria, then turning south to Jarrow, and finally arriving at Durham. St. Columba, St. Aiden, St. Hild, St. Wilfred and St. Cuthbert had all been unknown to me before. Now these shadowy figures, who lived roughly between the years 521 and 687, have staked a claim to my imagination – territory I’m happy to cede.

Nave of Durham Cathedral But it was a place rather than a person which drew me first and undid me at last. Above a bend in the river Wear rises Durham Cathedral. Several years ago, for reasons now lost to me, I became fascinated by the great English cathedrals, and Durham in particular. The images I saw of it’s immense nave flanked by massive Norman piers gouged with chevrons, spirals and diamonds, its twin west towers, more fortress-like than holy, and more believably hewn from the promontory above the river than built on it, compelled a love wanting consummation. Now, having consummated, I can say, without fear of overstatement, that it is the most extraordinary building I have ever set foot in.

imageBecause reading is my way, I spent the month and a half before leaving and the month since my return immersed in the literature of this time and place. I read several extended essays about Durham Cathedral, including an extraordinary one from 1887 by Mariana Griswold (Mrs. Schuyler) Van Rensselaer, America’s first female architecture critic. I read a history of Holy Island (as Lindisfarne is sometimes called) and a gorgeous and scholarly book on the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated Gospel book from the early 700’s, second in renown only to the the Book of Kells. I read Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, which, scintillating title aside, reads like a sequence of fairy tales. I read a collection called The Age of Bede, which features the Lives of St. Cuthbert and St. Wilfred, and the fanciful “Voyage of St. Brendan”. I read John Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God, which contrasts the Christianity of the Celts with the competing, and ultimately dominating, Roman version. I read two novels by the great Fredrick Buechner, Godric, and Brendan, about two relatively obscure saints whose lives nonetheless encapsulate the earthiness and earnestness which seemed to characterize the religious fervor of that time and place. I’m currently reading Adomnán of Iona’s Life of  St. Columba. Perhaps this will sate me. At least for now.

imageIf calling the come-to-Jesus moment I had with my own bookshelves around the time I began preparations for traveling to the UK a “parallel pilgrimage” is rather too precious, it nonetheless came from a similar place: the need for a shift in perspective. In my February post, “On the Meaning of Books” (http://thestockholmshelf.com/2014/02/on-the-meaning-of-books/) I wrote that each of the thousand plus books in my collection carries “a condensation of emotion” unrelated to its specific content. I also wrote that a large portion of these books belonged to my partner Sam who passed away a year ago in May, and that holding on to them was, in the land of magical thinking, a way of holding on to him. “There are books in the house I will never read,” I wrote, “a great many of which I don’t even want to. But I part with them at a cost.” Conversely, sometimes honoring what one is drawn to entails the release of excess. Having too much of anything inevitably becomes about the having, obscuring the beauty of the thing itself, the thing which draws. I said I had over a thousand books. In retrospect, it was more in the neighborhood of three thousand. Somewhere between a third and a half of them had to go.

Many books turned out to be obvious deportees. How we managed to accumulate no less than seven books on English usage, eight French textbooks, four copies of Invisible Man and two complete copies of Remembrance of Things Past in the Moncrieff translation I’ll never know. I didn’t need both the collected and selected poems of Auden. And really, will my life ever be long enough to read Sacajawea, no matter how good a read people say it is?

Others required harder choices. Which of the ten anthologies of American poetry should I keep? How many Chinese cookbooks does one need, or which of the eight Julia Childs? Hard indeed was the choice to let go of Jane Smiley’s early novel The Greenlanders. It was one of the first gifts I gave to Sam and I had written an inscription to him on the fly leaf. I knew that I would likely never read this probably very good book. But what would it mean to send it on? After much going back and forth about it, I realized that there was nothing that it could be a record of that hadn’t already left more indelible traces in my heart than I could ever count.

imageMy friend Nathan came over several times during this process to nominate some titles for the used book store where he works, but my collection was so idiosyncratic that this amounted to a relatively small portion. So I threw a book give-away party. I invited friends who I knew were readers, prepared a feast, then told them they couldn’t eat until they had each claimed a healthy stack. Whatever was left would be donated. Bittersweet at first, but ultimately a joy to see my friend Richard carry away Sam’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (my French will never be up for that) and my old Maud translation of War and Peace.

In the early monastic life of the British Isles there was a tradition of sacrifice known as the peregrinatio, or “Pilgrims of Christ”. It was one of the holiest callings a monk could receive, requiring that he give away his few belongings and set off from the monastery which had nurtured and sustained him, leaving his kin and his country, often never to return, and go only where Christ led him. Adomnán, I read, believed this was St. Columba’s purpose in sailing from Ireland to found the monastic community on Iona which was to have untold influence on the religious life of Britain for centuries to come. Without subtracting from the weight of this great call as received by certain remarkable people, it is, in some obvious ways, the most ordinary of all callings, heard by each of us at the dawn of consciousness. From the moment we are able to make the choice to extend ourselves toward what draws us or pull back in fear, or prudence, we are learning how to respond. Our past, our security, country and kin, it all gets left one way or another, whether grasped after or risen from, and the best way to make God laugh is to tell God your plans. And perhaps the call is less difficult than we fear. I’m not sad I gave those books away.

Here ends my explanation as to why I haven’t posted anything for the past two months. I expect that in July things will settle down a bit and I’ll get back on track. Look for a review of Claude Simon’s luminous The Trolley.

image

image

Page 1 of 1312345»10...Last »
November 2014
S M T W T F S
« Oct    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

My Favorite Places

My Bookshelf

Right Column Widgets

Welcome to the Right Column for the Evening Shade theme. You can put a variety of widgets in this location and to manage where they are published in your site, you can download the Widget logic plugin.