Everyone wants a Nobel Prize. Chilean poet Nicanor Parra feels he should get the “Nobel Prize for Reading”. How many aspiring writers feel they have the “Nobel Prize for Potential” in the bag? Nobel dreams arise from feelings of being unseen. One goggles out of one’s cranium at the wider world and sees the attention of those whose attention seems to matter being directed elsewhere, towards others, and one feels cut adrift, less than fully real, even, perhaps, mortally threatened. What people are really wanting when they want a Nobel Prize is to be seen and validated. It’s part of the human legacy to feel, somewhere along the line, unappreciated, misunderstood, not fully recognized. But for some, for whatever reason, the feeling carries an especially strong charge, giving rise to the sense that only something “ultimate” can break it. Winning a Nobel Prize means being seen, and validated, ultimately.
What goes for individuals can also go for whole cultures. Last October, The People’s Republic of China scored, if not its first Nobel Prize, then the first it can make use of in its rambunctious, somewhat hysterical pursuit of validation. Novelist Mo Yan’s win means that China can now punch the air over its invitation onto the cultural playing field. The Western cultural playing field, that is. The power it currently holds is based, in part, on their choice to match or surpass the shots the West had called. “About time, a Nobel,” said the regime.
To prolong the afterglow, the Chinese government has invested the equivalent of 110 million dollars to transform Mo’s hometown, the village of Ping’an, a backwater of eight hundred souls in the province of Shandong, into a theme park, the “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone”. In a nod to Mo Yan’s famous novel Red Sorghum, the government has also mandated the cultivation, “by real peasants”, of 1,600 acres of sorghum, a now useless crop that hasn’t been planted in decades. I strain to imagine an equivalent response anywhere. Imagine the United States congress pushing through a bill to create a William Faulkner theme park in rural Mississippi, exhibiting the mentally impaired, incestuously conceived, and the suicidal, skulking about movie set mansions, with matches, while a near-by cotton field is tended by real free blacks.
Because his fiction often takes on social ills and petty government corruption, many readers see Mo Yan as a gadfly biting the ears of the regime. He has, himself, made much of being a critic of the system “from within the system.” This could explain why his books sing with something of the system’s nasality. With his sprawling historical revisions, incorporation of fantastical elements, and adolescent good-naturedness about sex and violence, he has become an exponent of a what appears to be a dominant strain of the modern Chinese aesthetic sensibility. It is, in essence, a romantic sensibility, rife with exceptionalism and teleological imperative, which hog-ties historical fact against the demands of operatic myth making. As in Romanticism’s more bombastic manifestations, it has little to do with self-understanding and much to do with theatrical projection. For China, the audience for this theater is the rest of the world, with box seats for the First World West. Its stage-managed ploy to be seen and validated by this audience has often resulted in an aggressive tawdriness. Witness the teenaged neon-lit skylines of their millennia-old metropolises. Witness the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a veritable tribal orgasm of overweening muchness. The Three Gorges Dam, whatever its state-proclaimed justification, is, first and foremost, an expression of defiant gigantism, more exhibit than solution. If Mo Yan sometimes criticizes this China, he does so in a prose which this China understands. Now, his books, too, along with his very celebrity, have become exhibits.
In Mo Yan’s 1992 novel, The Republic of Wine, the central government has dispatched special investigator Ding Gao’er to a district called “Liquorland” where he is charged with getting to the bottom of rumors about a decadent culinary practice involving the braising of human baby boys in red sauce. Upon arrival, he is invited to a banquet in his honor, where, after being forced by cultural mores to drink himself blind, he is served what appears to be the dish in question. He is appropriately horrified. The officials hosting the banquet try to calm him, explaining how valuable this dish has been to the region.
‘This is a famous dish in these parts… It’s called Stork Delivering a Son. We serve it to visiting dignitaries. It’s a dish they won’t forget for as long as they live, one that has drawn nothing but praise. We’ve earned a lot of convertible currency for the nation by serving it to our most honored guests.’ (75)
Ding is unpersuaded. In drunken protest, he pulls out his gun and shoots the head off this “incredibly fragrant little boy.”
The drive for caché with the West is even more explicit in a scene depicting a cooking lesson given by a master chef to a group of anxious culinary students. She tells them,
‘As long as you can command the skill of cooking meat boys you’ll never have to worry about a thing, no matter where you go. Don’t you all want to go abroad? So long as you can handle this superior dish, it’s as good as holding a permanent visa in your hand. You can conquer the foreigners, be they Yanks, Krauts, or whatever.” (224)
The comment is slapdash; nowhere else in the novel is it suggested that outside interest has made a local instance of cannibalism exportable. But Mo is being colorful, and a tidy argument would mute his vivid palette.
Ding Gao’er is less a character than a type, recognizable from earliest films noir: the washed-up randy detective, full of posture, and pitiful. The target of his investigation is a local party leader named Diamond Jin, whose godlike charisma goofily stems from his ability to hold his liquor by the apparent swimming pool-full. Such gifts obtain in Liquorland. Ding gets into a made-to-order mess by falling for Diamond’s chip-shouldering, truck-driving girlfriend, who essentially rapes him for blackmail. The final showdown – not with Diamond Jin, but with the girlfriend, as by the end of his story he has completely abandoned the investigation for which he was hired – occurs in a popular watering hole called the Yichi Tavern, owned by a toad-like dwarf named Yu Yichi, able to walk on ceilings, and whose goal, well within sight, is to sleep with every beautiful girl in Liquorland. By the time Ding’s story ends, at the bottom of an open-air privy, where, in retrospect, it had been heading all along, he has become the novel’s only confirmed murderer.
I refer to Ding Gao’er’s story to distinguish it from the two other narrative lines of the novel. The second takes the form of an epistolary exchange between a famous novelist named Mo Yan, who is writing a book fortuitously called The Republic of Wine, and an aspiring young writer named Li Yidou. Mo Yan bears a striking resemblance to the author of the book in hand: overweight, a Kung fu novel aficionado, with a novel called Red Sorghum already under his belt, which – he’s understandably proud of this – was made into a successful movie by the famous director, Zhang Yimou. He is demure about his reputation: “I have no grounding in literary theory and hardly any ability to appreciate art,” he writes. “Any song and dance from me would be pointless.”
Li Yidou lives in Liquorville, where he writes his stories while studying for his Ph.D. in – can you guess? – “liquor studies.” Mo Yan is suitably impressed. “I envy you more than is probably good for me,” he writes.
If I were a doctor of liquor studies, I doubt I’d waste my time writing novels. In China, which reeks of liquor, can there be any endeavor with greater promise or a brighter future than the study of liquor, any field that bestows more abundant benefits? In the past, it was said that ‘in books there are castles of gold, in books there are casks of grain, in books there are beautiful women.’ But the almanacs of old had their shortcomings, and the word ‘liquor’ would have worked better than ‘books.’
Despite such coyness, he does offer advice, which mostly involves complimenting the idealistic young man on his prodigious imagination, and suggesting ways to make the stories attractive to a state-sponsored literary rag called Citizen’s Literature.
The stories themselves comprise the third narrative line of the novel. The first few stories address the same nasty business of the meat boys under investigation by Mo Yan’s Ding Gao’er. Among Li Yidou’s recurring characters is a precocious toddler who stages an escape among his fellow toddlers being held in waiting at the culinary institute. In other stories, the same figure morphs into an adolescent boy with scales instead of skin, a kind of trickster making trouble for the government officials. One story recounts how Li’s father-in-law, a respected professor at the Brewer’s college, leaves behind civilization to research the phenomenon of “ape liquor”, wine made by great apes who throw fruit into a natural stone cistern where it ferments, reputed to be the finest liquor in the world. He shares with Mo Yan the character Yu Yichi, the dwarf who owns the famous Liquorville tavern where Ding Gao’er makes his final descent. In keeping with the novel’s gustatory theme, one of the dishes he describes being served at the tavern consists of the genitalia of a male and a female donkey arranged just so on a plate and given the appellation, “Dragon and Phoenix Lucky Together”. The best of Li’s stories and the best writing in the book, is about his mother-in-law, with whom he is erotically fixated, who, in her youth, accompanied her father and uncles to remote caves by the ocean where they harvested, at tremendous, even tragic, personal risk, the swallow’s nests so in demand by China’s most expensive restaurants.
The Republic of Wine feels chaotic. Just what Mo Yan hopes his readers will pull from the chaos seems unclear. His rather broad-stroke metaphor – local government officials sanctioning eating the male children of their own people – is clearly intended to be subversive. That this novel was initially refused publication in China is not surprising. But neither is it surprising that, after the release of a Taiwanese edition, its attributes, we’ll say – I hesitate calling them merits – were reconsidered. The novel, it turns out, actually works in The Party’s favor: In Mo Yan’s fictional country, corruption lies, not in Beijing, with a government known for violent suppression of the populous (the Tiananmen Square Protests had occurred just three years earlier) but in the outposts, where local party leaders surreptitiously practice a gruesome caricature of capitalistic hedonism. While seeming to decry florid abuses of power, it, in fact, leaves China’s central government unscathed and heart of the system remains pure. Approving such a work looks good for the regime, and Mo Yan gets to play both sides. Or so it seems.
One thing I can say unequivocally after reading this novel is that I find the Nobel Committee’s reference to Garcia Marquez in their citation incredible: Lots of writers include fantastical elements in their novels who neither merit nor require a Garcia Marquez pin. In the case of Mo Yan, sentence by sensibility, there is no less apt a comparison. The Colombian master is an infinitely more careful, more painstaking, writer. His fantasy all signifies, while Mo’s frequently seems gratuitous, as if he thought of it thirty seconds before writing it. As with his use of sex and violence, the flights of fancy, what the Nobel citation calls “hallucinatory realism”, seem included only to raise the decibel level, and a kind of puerile hysteria, like a room full of second graders doing the underpants dance. I am surprised at The Committee’s superficial reading, of both authors.
Equally incredible is The Washington Post’s endorsement of this novel, invoking Gorky and Solzhenitsyn. In an article called a “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan”, which appeared in The Kenyon Review, Anna Sun, a professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon, contrasts Mo Yan with the greatest writers who have tackled the harshest social ills, suggesting that Mo lacks “aesthetic conviction.” She writes, “The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world.” She goes after the writing itself, demonstrating how it fails to rise above “Mao-ti”, or “Mao-speak”‘ a language which survived the Cultural Revolution, when the state forced literature to break with its long literary heritage.
Open any page, and one is treated to a jumble of words that juxtaposes rural vernacular, clichéd socialist rhetoric, and literary affectation. It is broken, profane, appalling, and artificial; it is shockingly banal. The language of Mo Yan is repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value. The English translations of Mo Yan’s novels, especially by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness. The blurb for The Republic of Wine from Washington Post says: “Goldblatt’s translation renders Mo Yan’s shimmering poetry and brutal realism as work akin to that of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.” But in fact, only the “brutal realism” is Mo Yan’s; the “shimmering poetry” comes from a brilliant translator’s work.
Even with Goldblatt’s heroic efforts, I, for one, experienced more shuddering than shimmering, at bald clichés and flat, unlayered prose.
Calling Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize “a catastrophe”, will likely prove one of Herta Müller’s most enduring public statements. The Swedish Academy’s decision to honor a writer who has refused to support dissident writers, and who has publicly attested to the usefulness of censorship, is, to her, an abomination. Yet, Mo Yan himself insists that his win is “a literature victory, not a political victory.” Echoing his position, the Nobel Committee had its perennial protestation, about the non-political, purely literary focus of the award all primed and ready to spray over the arguments of the expected detractors. Far more expert readers than me have persuasively argued the impossibility of such a clear separation of art from ideology, and it seems to me that Mo Yan would do well to invite the political foment, if only to distract readers from his actual writing.
Still, if read as a cultural artifact, The Republic of Wine holds a certain fascination. And I’m ready and willing to concede that my grimaced reading may, to some extent, be a cultural mis-reading. Clearly, his wild popularity in China avers that he has seen something compelling about China’s moment, and validated the experience of its people, or some important and unavoidable aspect of it. And who am I to say the favor shouldn’t be returned. While I find his political choices disturbing, to say the least, I cannot join those who cry that Stockholm should, for that reason alone, disinvite him from its table. If the artistry holds up, nothing more need be said. To me, it doesn’t. But then, he’s speaking for a country that would make a theme park out of his celebrity.
On-line references (Each of these, especially the second and third, are worth reading):
He needs to be accompanied when addressing the short flight of stairs up to the bedroom or down to the main level, but he manages them without assistance. The ability to do so was one of the criteria for discharge. Sam is home. He is not able to do much yet, but, after more than a month in the hospital, and another full month in rehab, this not much he can now do at home. And there is so much that he wants to do. It is the season of Advent. Waiting.
I had intended to tell you about reading Nadirs. In my last post I shared some of the feeling of amazement I experienced when my friend Viet presented me with an autographed copy of this book. This time I wanted to tell you about the book itself, about Herta Müller’s dark vision put forth in these almost gruesomely denuded – I lack, at the moment, a better term – stories. I even had the following opener all worked out: “Be careful, when you pick up a copy of Nadirs and start to read, that you don’t crack a tooth.” But life at our house has only just scrabbled to the far side of a rather deep nadir of its own, and still strains against a new rhythm relentlessly beaten out by bare physical need: gauze, urinal, cane, medicines, pill crusher, syringe, and learning to fall asleep to the sound of a feeding tube pump – and life rebels, wanting vantage. Müller’s thin, grim first volume, as good as it is, is not for now. Not yet.
While Sam was away, I consoled myself by reorganizing the portion of our personal library that lives in our room. So that yesterday, while getting dressed, my eye fell on… I’m not going to tell you what my eye fell on, at least not yet, except to say that it is one of the great reading experiences I know. And I thought how no one else I know has had it. And it occurred to me that it was just what the times require, and that I haven’t posted a Nobel mystery passage in a very long time.
Those of you who were following this blog last year will remember how this works: First, read the passage below, taken from the novel’s first chapter. Then turn yourself loose. Share your thoughts. What do you hear? How does it strike you? Any guesses what country the author is from? Does it trigger any memories? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read? Does it make you curious, or does it repel? Do you have a guess as to who the author is? Think you might know the title? Have you, by chance, read the book? Right answers are far less fun than wild speculation and surmises, why you might make a certain guess more interesting than the guess itself. Please ask for clues.
And speaking of clues, here is one: A careful ear will hear that this writing belongs to the first half of the Nobel Prize’s one hundred and twelve year history rather than the second. Best to lose, for the moment, whatever imagined need you might have for post-modernist irony.
In the bed by his mother’s side the child was stirring again. An unknown sorrow had risen from the depths of his being. He stiffened himself against her. He twisted his body, clenched his fists, and knitted his brows. His suffering increased steadily, quietly, certain of its strength. He knew not what it was, nor whence it came. It appeared immense,— infinite, and he began to cry lamentably. His mother caressed him with her gentle hands. Already his suffering was less acute. But he went on weeping, for he felt it near, still inside himself. A man who suffers can lesson his anguish by knowing whence it comes. By thought he can locate it in a certain portion of his body which can be cured, or, if necessary, torn away. He fixes the bounds of it, and separates it from himself. A child has no such illusive resource. His first encounter with suffering is more tragic and more true. Like his own being, it seems infinite. He feels that it is seated in his bosom, housed in his heart, and is mistress of his flesh. And it is so. It will not leave his body until it has eaten it away.
His mother hugs him to her, murmuring: “It is done— it is done! Don’t cry, my little Jesus, my little goldfish….” But his intermittent outcry continues. It is as though this wretched, unformed, and unconscious mass had a presentiment of a whole life of sorrow awaiting him, and nothing can appease him….
The bells of St. Martin rang out in the night. Their voices are solemn and slow. In the damp air they come like footsteps on moss. The child became silent in the middle of a sob. The marvelous music, like a flood of milk, surged sweetly through him. The night was lit up; the air was moist and tender. His sorrow disappeared, his heart began to laugh, and he slid into his dreams with a sigh of abandonment.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I had the strangest dream last night: The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, and the winner for 2012 was…Romy Schneider. Lets hear it for 1960′s Euro-glam! You might easily wonder how much time I have spent obsessing about Frau Schneider that her name would elbow through to the fore of my dreadfully overstuffed unconscious. Absolutely none. I assure you. In fact, I had to Wiki her just to remind myself what films I’ve seen her in. While in her too-short life the Austrian-born bombshell made trouble for stiff, bland Tom Tyron in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, played Empress Elizabeth of Austria in Lucchino Visconti’s lugubrious Ludwig, and carried on a very public affair with Alain Delon, produce a great work of literature she did not. I could be persuaded that she had an active postcard life, but, beyond that, it is hard to even imagine her in the act of writing. But, in my dream, she had written at least one great novel, praised for its “pervasive melancholy and diaphanous language”. From what neural trash-bin of cliches did I pull this? My first thought upon waking: It should have gone to Fanny Ardant. With her Truffaut background and ability to take Cathrine Deneuve to the floor, she’d have no time for such gauzy tosh. My second thought was a rueful wish that Schneider had actually produced this reputed lachrymose masterpiece. I’d be curious to read it. Though it would, perhaps, be a toss up between that and Simone Signoret’s memoir, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be.
Romy Schneider – Surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
Thankfully, the choice for the Nobel is not up to my brain stem. It is, rather, up to the brain stems of the five men and women appointed by the Swedish Academy whose job it is each year to dream up a winner. If this sounds irreverent to that illustrious coterie of intellectual curators, consider neuroscience. Because of the work of scientists, who themselves have won Nobels, we know that to make so-called “rational” decisions, our brains must enlist their more antiquated components, those areas in charge of our emotions, desires and anxieties, our knee-jerk reactions, all that was once subsumed by the Freudian id. The separation of reason from un-reason, they tell us, is pure illusion. In a normally functioning brain, the cortex weighs options, puts forth its arguments, assembles its narratives, but at the moment of choice, something primal, emotional, reptilian, must be satisfied. What we decide to do with our money, who we decide to sit next to on the bus, or vote for, or flirt with, or flee, who, what, how, and where we decide to worship, or read, unless we draw on the lizardish parts of our brains - those parts connected to our dreams – we are left in a purgatory of indecision.
When the announcement comes, the head secretary will issue a pithy statement, summarizing the committee’s rationale. The new laureate may “Give voice to an experience as yet un-heard on the World stage”, or use language to “limn the boundaries of the sayable.” But, in his effort to make their choice make sense to us, he won’t tell us the half of what went into it. To wit, what lights their little Nordic fires.
Whatever conversations I might have with my analyst about my “Romy Schneider wins the Nobel Prize” dream, the best part of it is the sublime joke of it, that is, its unpremeditated murder of expectation. Whether we grouse or whoop, we all secretly love it when this happens. Our brain stems light up, we become alert, our bodies vibrate. My waking brain will forever keep Romy Schneider from her Nobel Prize. But there is something in the names of each of the men and women I do place on my personal list of contenders that lights the same spark of delight I had upon waking this morning, and realizing that something rather fabulous had happened.
So, in the next few weeks, think kind thoughts for the Swedish five, as they lay their heads down each night on their impeccably laundered pillows, that their brain stems send them wild dreams, and that when they wake to hold their conclave, they remember the delight.
My Personal Long List:
In the mean time, here is my long list for this year. Sometime before the big announcement, I’ll share my short list. Read through it. If there is someone I’ve named at whom your own limbic system shudders, by all means say so. Likewise if you are in agreement about any of these writers, let me know. But, best of all, if there is someone absent from this list who you feel must be included, don’t remain selfishly silent. Tell us who you would dream up as a winner.
1. Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
2. Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)
3. Margaret Atwood (Canada)
4. Bei Dao (China)
5. Juan Goytisolo (Spain)
6. Ismail Kadare (Albania)
7. György Konrad (Hungary)
8. László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
9. Milan Kundera (Czech Republic/ France)
10. Cormac McCarthy (United States)
11. Alice Munro (Canada)
12. Les Murray (Australia)
13. Cees Nooteboom (Netherlands)
14. Amos Oz (Israel)
15. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Russia)
16. Philip Roth (United States)
17. Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)
18. Tom Stoppard (Great Britian)
19. William Trevor (Ireland)
20. Michel Tournier (France)
I. THE BOOK: GOD APPEARS IN A GOB OF SPITTLE
It is hardly a spoiler to say that on page 508 of Patrick White’s novel The Tree of Man Stan Parker dies. One gathers from the opening pages, in which we find the young Stan Parker establishing himself as a pin-point of humanity in the vast Australian bush, that this is going to be “that kind of a book”. One could even suspect it from the title itself, proclaiming, as it does, the novel’s encompassing intentions with perilously grand echoes: The Descent of Man, The Tree of Life, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Man’s Fate, Man’s Hope, The World Tree, The Rise of Man, The Fall, etc.. No question that we are going to be reading through the full gamut, life, death, and all the rest. By the time we turn the last pages, having lived with Stan Parker, his wife, Amy, and their children, Ray and Thelma, through fire, flood, griefs, infidelity, failures and quiet triumphs, and, yes, Stan’s death, that potentially burdensome title, we find, has long since shed all grandiosity, and become merely apt.
Stan Parker has been called Patrick White’s “first good man”. David Marr, White’s biographer, records his struggles to create him: “The greatest technical difficulty White faced, one which drove him to rages and left him sitting, at times ‘three days over just one sentence’ was the challenge of making goodness live and breathe on the page. ‘I’m not a good person,’ White often confessed to his friends. ‘But I know goodness.’” Stan Parker is stubborn and a bit of a fatalist, like White himself. He is practical, strong of body, taciturn, with a great, uncharted continent of poetry lost somewhere inside of him. This subterranean spiritual thirst sends out signal flares in fragile moments, as when he takes Ray, with whom he has spent the years leading up to the boy’s puppy-killing adolescence inadvertently constructing a great edifice of relational failure, into the bush, in hopes that the vast, open distances will do for his son what it always does for him.
Stan intuits God, without ever naming God, in the elements. On a hot night, after Amy, has gone to bed, he remains outside, waiting for a storm to break. When it does, he is, at first, exultant.
But as the storm increased, his flesh had doubts, and he began to experience humility. The lightning, which could have struck open basalt, had, it seemed, the power to open souls. It was obvious in the yellow flash that something like this had happened, the flesh had slipped from his bones, and the light was shining in his cavernous skull.
Yet, for all the intimations, God remains elusive. Only at the end, minutes before his death, does Stan receive his revelation. He is sitting in a chair, old and failing, amidst the trees in the yard outside his home, where he is accosted by an earnest young man aflame with the Gospel. God, the young man believes, has saved him from a life of women and alcohol. Such conversions crave ratification through the conversions of others, and Stan Parker has been elected. Which means that this most private moment at which his life has, at last, arrived, is threatened by farce. During this encounter, Stan relieves himself of phlegm:
Then the old man, who had been cornered long enough, saw, through perversity perhaps, but with his own eyes. He was illuminated.
He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.
“That is God,” he said.
As it lay glittering intensely and personally on the ground.
Stan is not being impertinent. He is responding to a great unveiling. The bewildered young man departs, leaving behind some tracts which he hopes will finish the job he, and of course the Holy Spirit, have begun, while Stan continues to stare at the spittle. Only now, a “jewel”.
A great tenderness of understanding rose in his chest. Even the most obscure, the most sickening incidents of his life were made clear. In that light. How long will they leave me like this, he wondered, in peace and understanding.
The “gob of spittle” passage is famous in Australian literature. It is one of the very few overtly religious moments in what is a deeply religious novel. White’s God, when finally called forth, is, as we see, viscous. What’s more, this God has emerged from Stan himself. Quite literally. In all of White’s work, and in this book in particular, it is only when his characters cease resisting their messy, humbling, secreting bodies, and the often ramshackle lives through which those bodies stumble, that they encounter what they had always believed lay beyond themselves. What they encounter is no less transcendent for this, no less luminous. It is a difficult truth. But then, Patrick White is known as a “difficult” writer. Difficult, too, because he uses a richly allusive, subtly symbolic language to coax his reader into a parallel awareness. Sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, White nudges his reader awake, quietly drawing attention to something just off the page, or behind it. Listen to how White evokes Stan, on that last afternoon, sitting:
That afternoon the old man’s chair had been put on the grass at the back, which was quite dead-looking from the touch of winter. Out there at the back, the grass, you could hardly call it a lawn, had formed a circle in the shrubs and trees which the old woman had not so much planted as stuck in during her lifetime. There was little of design in the garden originally, though one had formed out of the wilderness. It was perfectly obvious that the man was seated at the heart of it, and from this heart the trees radiated, with grave movements of life, and beyond them the sweep of a vegetable garden, which had gone to weed during the months of the man’s illness, presented the austere skeletons of cabbages and the wands of onion seed. All was circumference to the centre, and beyond that the worlds of other circles, whether crescent of purple villas or the bare patches of earth, on which rabbits sat and observed some abstract spectacle for minutes on end, in a paddock not yet built upon. The last circle but one was the cold and golden bowl of winter, enclosing all that was visible and material, and at which the man would blink from time to time, out of his watery eyes, unequal to the effort of realizing he was the centre of it.
I quote at length because White does a better job than I could ever do of summation. We have come to know this rangy garden, these trees. By drawing attention, at the novel’s end, to its inception as a kind of horticultural flailing, and its subsequent emergent design, White invites us to consider at least two layers of meaning beyond the the physical. First, there is the life of this couple, more like the garden described than the garden itself. Notice that here Amy is named “the old woman”. Throughout the book, at intervals, Stan and Amy are stripped of their given names and called simply, “the man”, “the woman”, rendering them at once mythic and fragile. We’ve met them before, most memorably in The Book of Genesis. We watch these two ordinary, unformed, people, grope their way toward each other, generally missing each other by a mile. We watch as they try, and fail, to be the parents their children need. We watch Amy become possessive, while Stan grows ever more distant. We watch their erotic lives travel along incompatible arcs of meaning. The flood they survive and the fire they survive, leave scars on their souls far more lasting than those left on the land on which they survive. And that land, on which they were the first to settle, will not long bear up under the ugly banality of urban encroachment. Along the way they learn that death is always a violence, regardless of its means, and that death can mean something quite other than the demise of the body. As they approach the end of their great meander, not far in miles, but metaphysically epic, they find they have arrived at a life. Its been going on all along, of course. They can look across it now, find its design, and a kind of undeclared grace. Through their story, White draws our attention to a process, the mystery of creation itself. What wasn’t, now is, simply for something having been “stuck in” along the way. It is as if, at the end of the novel, we are witnesses to its birth.
And how about all those circles. This passage’s most obvious antecedent is the famous final paragraph of The Dead, in which Joyce lifts his lens to ever more encompassing circles of snowfall. In White’s homage, Stan sits at the heart of a veritable mandala: a circle of shrubs and trees first, then the vegetable garden, then the paddocks, and, the last but one, the “cold and golden bowl of winter.” Like a Hasid, White refuses to name the final circle. And yet, it is into this circle that all is, finally, subsumed.
II. THE BACKGROUND: THE REPATRIATED PATRICK WHITE LANDS ON HIS BEHIND
White might never have written The Tree of Man. The poor reception, in Australia, of his previous novel, the brilliant The Aunt’s Story, had all but disposed him never to write again. But then, Australia itself began to encroach upon his always negligible peace of mind. In his autobiographical essay, “The Prodigal Son”, he writes about the inception of The Tree of Man:
Then, suddenly, I began to grow discontented. Perhaps, in spite of Australian critics, writing novels was the only thing I could do with any degree of success; even my half-failures were some justification of an otherwise meaningless life. Returning sentimentally to a country I had left in my youth, what had I really found: Was there anything to prevent me packing my bag and leaving…? Bitterly I had to admit, no. In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.
It was the exaltation of the ‘average’ that made me panic most, and in this frame of mind, in spite of myself, I began to conceive another novel. Because the void I had to fill was immense, I wanted to try to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally, my own life since my return.
This discontent, and the urgency to ameliorate it through writing, had a background which he did not reveal until late in his life, when age had, if anything, sharpened his powers of ruthless self-observation. In his memoir, Flaws in the Glass, he recounts a Damascene moment which, like Stan’s final transfiguration, was at once intensely personal and catalyzed by farce. Actually, in White’s case, slapstick: White and his partner, Manoly Lascaris, were raising Schnauzers on a six-acre farm on the outskirts of Sydney. He hadn’t written anything for nearly seven years, and had grown used to it. A few days before Christmas 1951, a frail but kicking faith broke through while feeding the dogs in a downpour…
During what seemed like months of rain I was carrying a trayload of food to a wormy litter of pups down at the kennels when I slipped and fell on my back, dog dishes shooting in all directions. I lay where I had fallen, half-blinded by rain, under a pale sky, cursing through watery lips a god in whom I did not believe. I began laughing finally, at my own helplessness and hopelessness, in the mud and the stench from my filthy old oilskin.
It was the turning point. My disbelief appeared as farcical as my fall. At that moment I was truly humbled.
…and from this faith, the need to carve out a place for it in a world that seemed at odds with it. From the opening sentences of The Tree of Man, we hear him wrestling to draw forth “the extraordinary behind the ordinary”, what Annie Dillard calls “Holy the Firm”, a mystical substance on which the physical world is made, but which is, itself, in touch with God. On every page you can hear White explaining to himself that Advent-season ass-plant in the mud, smeared with what he could no longer resist.
Worse things, by far, have taken root in the mud. This is a very great book. I hope you read it.
III. AN INTERVIEW WITH WHITE’S BIOGRAPHER, DAVID MARR: “THE LIFE AND FAITH OF PATRICK WHITE”
Out of the twenty writers named in my last post, here, in ascending order, are my top five choices for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature:
5. Tom Stoppard
From Great Britain comes one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. His work is characterized by extreme erudition, almost miraculous wordplay, and tremendous philosophical and moral depth. Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, and the epic The Coast of Utopia, are three of his most famous plays, but my personal favorite is The Invention of Love, about the poet A. E. Houseman, about his unspoken life-long love for a handsome young athlete, and by extension, about silences, the silence of lost classical texts, about the silence of what cannot be communicated through translation, both literal and figurative. Here is part of a monologue spoken by one of Houseman’s associates, Walter Pater, the great critic, essayist and scholar.
PATER: … The Renaissance teaches us that the book of knowledge is not to be learned by rote but is to be written anew in the ecstasy of living each moment for the moment’s sake. Success in life is to maintain this ecstasy, to burn always with this hard gem-like flame. Failure is to form habits. To burn with a gem-like flame is to capture the awareness of each moment; and for that moment only. To form habits is to be absent from those moments. How may we always be present for them? — to garner not the fruits of experience but experience itself?—
(At a distance, getting no closer, Jackson [the object of Houseman's love] is seen as a runner running towards us.)
…to catch at the exquisite passion, the strange flower, or art – or the face of one’s friend? For, not to do so in our short day of frost and sun is to sleep before evening. The conventional morality which requires of us the sacrifice of any one of those moments has no real claim on us. The love of art for art’s sake seeks to nothing in return except the highest quality to the moments of your life, and simply for those moment’s sake.
JOWETT (Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol) Mr. Pater, can you spare a moment?
PATER: Certainly! As many as you like!
4. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
I learned about this astounding writer from Russia a couple of years ago through an article by Jane Smiley in the New York Times Book Review. She mentioned a book of stories called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. It is, as the title would indicate, a collection like no other, a book of “nekyia” or “night journeys”, descents into the underworld, literal or social, in which one is never sure which reality is the more “real”. Last month, I read her short novel The Time: Night, published in the waning days of the Soviet Union, in which, through the voice of a woman on the edge, a poet trying to hold together her disintegrating family in one hand and her sanity in the other, she lays bare a desperation as harrowing as any I have read. In addition to being one of the most preeminent authors and playwrights in Russia, she is also a popular cabaret artist. May all good things come to this over-the-top genius. Here is the first paragraph of her story The Arm.
During the war, a colonel received a letter from his wife. She misses him very much, it said, and won’t he come visit because she’s worried she’ll die without having seen him. The colonel applied for leave right away, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted three days. He got a plane home, but just an hour before his arrival his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base – and suddenly discovered he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the train station – all with great difficulty – but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin – it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In this dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face.
3. Alice Munro
What this great Canadian dredges up from somewhere near the sewer system of her character’s souls, and how she does it – by sticking unflinchingly to the apparent surface of things – makes her, to my mind, an unqualified genius. Her metier may be the declasse short story, but she has so exploded that form, and in such an organic, un-showy way, that she sits comfortably along side any of the great innovators of fiction at work today. Then there is the service she does for her region, bringing Southwestern Ontario into international consciousness for the first time, as surely as Pearl Buck brought China to the West. Only, Munro has a far superior linguistic apparatus with which she does this. I don’t know anyone who packs so many layers of information into such short, unadorned sentences.
In this passage, from the story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, a man, Grant, unable to care for his wife, Fiona, who has Alzheimer’s disease, has put her a nursing home, where, forgetting their long happy marriage, she falls in love with a fellow patient, Aubrey. Aubrey’s wife has decided to remove her husband from the nursing home and care for him at home. Grant sees his wife’s suffering and takes action:
Then he took the plunge, going on to make the request he’d come to make. Could she consider taking Aubrey back to Meadowlake maybe just one day a week, for a visit? It was only a drive of a few miles, surely it wouldn’t prove too difficult. Or if she’d like to take the time off – Grant hadn’t thought of this before and was rather dismayed to hear himself suggest it – then he himself could take Aubrey out there, he wouldn’t mind at all. He was sure he could manage it. And she could use a break.
While he talked she moved her closed lips and her hidden tongue as if she was trying to identify a dubious flavor. She brought milk for his coffee, and a plate of ginger cookies.
“Homemade,” she said as she set the plate down. There was challenge rather than hospitality in her tone. She said nothing more until she had sat down, poured milk into her coffee and stirred it.
2. Philip Roth
Yes. I know: Sex. Frantic masculinity. A little misogyny, anyone? Endless rants. But really, who in America writes like this? Sam and I frequently discuss him. Sam’s concern is that Roth belongs to the “sex-as-salvation” family of narcissistic straight white male writers. I contend that, to the contrary, his best work lays bare the sheer benightedness of such a theology. And not just sex, but all the signifiers of the “American Dream” – power, wealth, social acceptance – you name it, he gives the lie to it. Far from being adolescent in his sensibility, as he is often accused, he takes down our adolescent country in prose as energetic and beautiful as any being written. Here, from one of my favorite American novels, The Human Stain, is what I mean:
It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered “Why are we so crazy?”, when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovering that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing a legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when – for the billionth time – the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality. It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.
1. Tomas Tranströmer
Here is an example to illustrate why, to my mind, there is no greater living poet than this man from Sweden.
2 A.M.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far-off sparks of light from the town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.
As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember that he was there
when he returns to his room.
Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.
The train is entirely motionless.
2 o’clock: strong moonlight, few stars.
The award is scheduled to be announced this Thursday, October 6th. Until then, let the speculations fly. Who would it just make your week to see honored this year, and why?
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- You weren't going to forget about ___ were you? (4)
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