What was Chinua Achebe thinking? It was his only manuscript, and handwritten.
I picture him as a young man living in Lagos, carefully stashing in his suitcase the manuscript for the novel he has begun. It is 1956, and the BBC has given him a scholarship to study in London. The first non-Nigerian soil he will have ever set foot on will afford him a glimpse of the world from which had come his beloved Dickens, Shakespeare, Tennyson, as well as the captivating colonial pablum of Sir Henry Rider Haggard, whose tribal African characters, malign brutes driven by bestial cunning, had filled Achebe with a distressing loathing for his own. It had also given him Joseph Conrad, a writer of greatness, himself an immigrant, who, ironically, may have shaped his destiny as a writer more than any other because there came a moment when he realized he was not numbered among the noble race on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness, “rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces.” Conrad’s famous book set up a fortuitous dissonance between his reading and the eloquence of the Christian ministers and Igbo elders who formed him as a child, one which made the manuscript he had so carefully tucked under his few clothes in that suitcase a fierce necessity.
London. Dickens’ hotbed: I imagine the twenty-six year old Chinua Achebe, furrow-browed, and, on account of the latitude, just a little chilly, taking in his new surroundings, running all the novel sensory input coming at him against all he knows of life in Nigeria, learning as much about his homeland as about London. Less color here. Fewer flies. Post-war scarring notwithstanding, it is clear where power lies. Things fall apart here too, but no one lets on.
He meets a man named Gilbert Phelps, a novelist and, incredibly, a critic of African literature. Phelps introduces this intense young African to the English way of drinking pints, over which they discuss the work of Achebe’s compatriot, Amos Tutuola, whose novel, Palm-Wine Drinkard, had finally been published in England in 1952, and about why it had taken six years. They go back and forth about the work of Achebe’s other compatriot, Cyprian Ekwensi, whose novel, People of the City, had come out just two years earlier to become the first book by a Nigerian to have made it onto international shelves. How amazed they both must be to be talking about these things. Achebe goes back to his quarters, spends a sleepless night, by the end of which he has reached a decision. He gathers up his manuscript and brings it to Phelps. His novel, set in the late nineteenth century, about a local Igbo (or “Ibo”) wrestling champion and yam farmer, whose people suffer the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries, is now in the hands of one of the race of colonizers. One of those on the riverbank has handed over the product of his mind to one on deck.
Phelps loves what he reads. He tells Achebe that he has produced a great book which must be published. But Marlow’s world has left him changed. There is so much more that must be said than he had realized. Back in Lagos he finds that his manuscript has, quite unbeknownst to him, divided in two. He takes up what has become the first part, in which his former wrestler, Okonkwo, rises out of poverty to become a wealthy landowner, then a murderer, and finally a suicide, and shapes it into a tragedy worthy of Aeschylus. The pages burn so bright with counter-Conradian fire that he can work well into the heavy nights without a light. One morning, he wakes, steps out into the sub-Saharan sun, blinks, rubs his nose once, and realizes he has finished.
Now, what’s an African writer to do? He knows he has something powerful on his hands, a fiction different from that of Tutuola, different from Ekwensi, whom he admires. But he knows, too, that the world into which he wants to introduce it, like a firebrand onto the deck of a Congo-trolling steamboat, will snuff it like a cigarette butt unless it has the right look. And so he gathers up the pages and like a parent sending off a child he sends them, along with 22£, back across the continents, to a typing service in London. He has done the right thing. Surely.
And I’m left wondering what he was thinking. Upon what reserves of faith did he draw, tapping what vein of idealism, or was it plain naiveté, to conceive that he could entrust the one and only copy of his manuscript to the transcontinental post, bound, unheralded, for the crowded desks and files of a typing service in London, without imagining that it could be lost along the way, or, assuming it arrived as intended, that those who received it would not regard it – a novel apparently, from Africa? – as some kind of joke? I find it moving beyond words that he was already living, mentally, in the kind of world he hoped his novel would be, in some small way, an agent of.
And it seems for a moment he will be vindicated. How quickly he tears open the envelope with the agency’s reply. It says that for two typed copies they require 32£, which he promptly sends, then settles in to wait out the weeks. Then the months. A season or two. Those around him begin to note to each other how emaciated Chinua is becoming. After many months, it seems clear that his manuscript is lost – to him, and to the world. Late in life he will acknowledge that the fate of his own character, Okonkwo, could have been his as well.
To those among us not destined to be artists, let us hope will fall the role of advocate. Angela Beattie, an Englishwoman abroad, could choose not to bother with her brainy and ever more apparently troubled employee, Chinua. Surely she has enough on her mind unpacking how she has come to hold this position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service here in swarming Lagos. But she does bother. She finds out what has left Chinua so reduced, and when next she travels home to London, she seeks out the delinquent agency and unleashes a righteous furry. “And when they saw a real person come out of the vague mess of the British colonies,” Achebe will later write, “they knew it was no longer a joke.” He got his copy – one copy, never the paid-for second.
He sends it to a British agent, recommend by his friend Phelps, who gets it to the desk of a publishing house called Heinemann. Once again it meets with skepticism. A novel apparently, from Africa? They seek an informed opinion. A London professor by the name of Donald McRae, the imprint of travel in West Africa still reddening his mind, gives them seven words, all they need, calling it, “The best first novel since the war.” And so Heinemann, the publishing house which sixty years earlier had published Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, introduces Chinua Achebe to the world with Things Fall Apart.
And so began one of the century’s great literary careers. As early as 1973 his name began to be mentioned in connection with The Nobel Prize. But when, in 1986, the Nobel committee was finally ready to touch its scepter to the shoulders of an African, the honor fell to Achebe’s compatriot Wole Soyinka. Over the years, three more Africans won, each having stepped through the door Achebe opened. Nadine Gordimer called him “the father of modern African literature.” American laureate Toni Morrison, who wrote an essay on Achebe back in the 1960′s, found his work “liberating in a way nothing had been before.” Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been increasingly in the sights of Nobel hounds, owes his emergence onto the world stage directly to Achebe’s championing of his first novel. “Achebe bestrides generations and geographies,” he has said. “Every country in Africa claims him as their own. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain universal wisdom.”
Still, no Nobel. Reconciling Achebe’s worldwide eminence, which The New York Times has noted “was rivaled only by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and a handful of others,” with his apparent inability to be sufficiently interesting to Stockholm, has for decades been a mental exercise among his admirers. Arguments coalesce, rather thinly I think, around the Conrad issue. Achebe’s lifelong criticism of this sacred cow of the modern Western canon must, they think, have inoculated him against a Nobel. As if, having gained the respect of those on board that Congo steamer, he should have had the grace to ascend the gangway they had lowered for him. Well, perhaps. Then there is the language question. Even as Things Fall Apart was blazing the trail that over the next few decades would widen into a highway, Achebe was lambasted for writing in the language of the colonizers. With the steady depreciation of the idea of colonialism, attention has begun to fall, quite rightly, on the endangerment of native languages. Achebe may have made Ngugi wa Thiong’o's career possible, but writing in Gikuyu has made the Kenyan the more ascendant Nobel contender.
Achebe himself didn’t worry much about the Nobel. He had much greater ambitions: “I would be quite satisfied,” he said, “if my novels did no more than teach [African] readers that their past was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans, acting on God’s behalf, delivered them.”
Last year Carlos Fuentes deprived the Nobel committee the honor of making him a laureate. Last month it fell to Achebe to do the same.
Chinua Achebe, 1930 – 2013
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):
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”
A question for you: If a book’s opening pages amaze you, and its closing pages bring you near tears, have you read a great book? The need to pose the question at all is probably its own answer. Nevertheless, Darkness Visible, William Golding’s troubling and troublesome novel, had me hashing out this question long after closing the back cover.
The title refers to Milton’s evocation of hell in Paradise Lost:
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes.
And so, before we even open the book we have some idea of that into which we are about to be plunged. When Darkness Visible came out in 1979, Golding had not published a novel in twelve years, and you can tell. The pages are heavy with density of meaning. The writing is gorgeous, in places baroquely claused, allusive. Golding begins with hell on earth, a furnace – 1940 London during a German Blitz – out of which walks a flaming child. Listen to his description of the moment the child is spotted by the fire crew peering into the blaze left by a bomb:
At the end of the street or where now, humanly speaking, the street was no longer part of the habitable world – at that point where the world had become an open stove – at a point where odd bits of brightness condensed to form a lamp-post still standing, a pillar box, some eccentrically shaped rubble – right there, where the flinty street was turned into light, something moved. (12)
That phrase, “no longer part of the habitable world”, is large, and apt, to the passage and the novel, for clearly, after his twelve-year silence, Golding had come to wonder what part of the spiritually decimated post-WWII post-Vietnam world, whose only hopeful generation was being conquered by and divided between the guru and the radical, remained habitable, “humanly speaking.” To explore this problem, he adopted the convention of the double, two characters opposed, the guru and the radical, who, though they never meet, set in motion a philosophical weather system.
The first is Matty, the flaming child, whose stride out of the Blitz and onto the page loudly echos the most famous photographic image from the Vietnam War. Severely burned, he becomes, almost point by point, the “burning babe,” in Robert Southwell’s somewhat off-putting allegory of Christ.
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
In the character of Matty the saccharin is, thankfully, neutralized by his daunting literalness, which makes him at once a holy fool and destructive element. His face makes visible his character, and the darkness therein: the left side has been burned away to a bald white scar while the right remains intact. After his rescue, Matty (Matthew Septimus Windrove, as he has been named, though no one uses the middle name or can ever quite get a handle on the last) is taken to the mythical town of Greenfield where he is put in a school for foundlings. There he meets the homosexul pedophile, Sebastian Pedigree. Mr. Pedigree, to deter rumors about his practice of giving the most beautiful boys private “tutelage”, bumps one, his beloved Henderson, for Matty, whose grotesque appearance disgusts him, but, he hopes, will quash suspicion. Matty is only able to take this turn in his favor at face value, and so believes Pedigree to be his “one true friend”, and pretty Henderson to be essentially bad because fallen from grace. When Henderson falls even further, from the lean stairs outside Pedigree’s window to his death, Matty is implicated because his gym shoe is found near the body. Accident, suicide, murder – Golding is admirably ambiguous on this point. In any case, both Pedigree and Matty are removed from the school in disgrace, but not before Pedigree spits out a curse on Matty, calling him “That horrible, ugly boy!” and telling him “It’s all your fault!”.
Matty spends the next years of his life attempting to atone for a sin he accepts without attempting to understand. He becomes a highly idiosyncratic Bible freak, expatriates to Australia where, among other things, he undergoes a “crucifarce” in which he is nearly emasculated by an Aborigine. He keeps a journal in which he records his conversations with two angelic presences, one dressed in red robes and hat, the other in blue, the first “more expensive” than the second, who tell him he is “very near the center of things.” He puts himself through a bizarrely convoluted cleansing ritual or baptism in a swamp near Darwin before repatriating to Greenfield, which he enters riding the bicycle equivalent of Monsieur Hulot’s automobile. He becomes a handyman at an exclusive boarding school, and emerges as a kind of prophet, at least in the minds of two rather mediocre men, a retired school teacher named Edwin Bell and a bookseller named Sim Goodchild.
Matty’s double is Sophy, the more deadly of two beautiful sociopathic twins. Early in our acquaintance with this character, one of Golding’s vilist, we see her as a small girl, throwing stones at dabchicks as they swim down a river. With awful precocity, she ascertains the exact arch and moment of release which will cause her stone to kill one of them. To her, the mere possibility of doing so makes it an imperative.
Then there was the longer pleasure, the achieved contemplation of the scrap of fluff turning gently as the stream bore it out of sight. (109)
Well then. She awakens to sexuality early, through her preternatural awareness of her feelings for her emotionally distant father (the twins’s mother left early on), and his relationships with a series of “aunties”. It is almost a matter of course that her eroticism turns violent. She has her first orgasm only when, during sex, she stabs her thuggish boyfriend, Roland, deep in his shoulder. She can’t fathom his fuss. A radio broadcast on the subject of entropy articulates for her the sense that “the whole universe is winding down.” She believes the only viable course of action is to help it along. While her sister, Toni, heads out for a career in international terrorism, Sophy remains in Greenfield where she uses sex as a magnet to bind a handful of dupes to her like iron filings, and, with them, hatches a terrorist plot of her own. This involves kidnapping the son of an oil sheik from the school where Matty is employed. As the operation commences, she imagines murdering the boy in such graphic detail, and in such an orgiastic swoon, that I had to read the passage twice to satisfy myself that the murder didn’t actually happen. The bomb the terrorists use to incite the chaos brings Matty full circle; as the kidnapping gets underway, Matty, immolating, pursues the kidnappers and thwarts the operation.
The accumulation of pages, up to this point, had left the book’s importance, and Golding’s urgency, thoroughly overdetermined, and I was looking forward to being done with it. So much so that I was entirely unprepared to find the novel’s beating heart, right there in the last four pages. Matty, as it turned out, was not finished with his task on Earth. Pedigree was still out there, all those years later, old, disintegrating, and still grievously in thrall to his addiction to “the sons of the morning”. We see him, lonely and broken, in the park with its public restroom where he habitually operated. He positions himself on a bench near the gravel playground. He has with him his lure of choice, a big many-colored ball. Just as he is preparing to use it Matty appears to him, transfigured. The tables are turned, and Pedigree finds himself the object of an unwanted advance. A tussle ensues, more awesome than any of the preceding conflagrations, for Pedigree’s soul. It is a paradox that here, at the end, when the story becomes most blatantly metaphysical, it also becomes most believable.
Darkness Visible groans and buckles under converging pressures: Vertically, it staggers under its freight of symbolism. Horizontally, it is stretched by the tortured exigencies of plot.
Take Matty, by comparison the more approachable of the two protagonists. He is an amalgam of metaphors. In addition to being Golding’s most transparent Christ, there is his name, Matthew Septimus. Looking up Matthew 7 in the Bible, one finds Christ’s warning against false prophets. Though he be Christ, he is one of these too. Then there is his face, split between the hideously wasted left and the healthy right. In the bicameral brain, the left hemisphere controls speech and sequential reason, the right is inarticulate but feels, has visions, making him a fool-proof fool to play against Sophy’s extreme rational materialist. A. S. Byatt, who loved the book, can’t get enough of this game:
If the beautiful twins are the fallen Whore, Matty, piebald, mutilated, is the incarnate Second Coming, the figure in the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel, the alchemical conjunction of opposites in one body and thus the Philosopher’s Stone – which was often pictured as a naked child and referred to as the orphan. He is also Horus, Horapollo, one-eyed God of Light, who was imagined as a naked boy with one bald side to his head and one “lock of youth” over his temple. Horus is also falcon-headed, and it is as a great golden bird that Matty finally appears to Mr. Pedigree at the end of the novel, flaming, feathered, golden, loving and terrible. That is why I also believe that the name which came into the hospital superintendent’s mind, the name no one speaks, was Windhover – Hopkins’s Falcon, the Christ whose blue-bleak embers fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion…. If Satan is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Golding has said that he believes man is “the local contradiction to this rule,” that in him “the cosmos is organising energy back to the sunlight level.” Matty is the contradictory burning bush that is not consumed.
Matty, it seems, is a veritable kitchen sink of symbols an and allusions. He is everything, it seems, except an actual human being, about whom one can feel a shred of empathy. To me, he comes across as a Joan d’Arc cum Don Quioxte without the romance of either.
In spite of a lot being said about her, including how her pointy breasts rise in her father’s presence, Sophy is even more reduced. With Matty we can at least feel pity. With Sophy, only revulsion. Everything about her pertains to her nihilism. She is more a type of sin than a person. Her belief in the ennobling power of gratuitous acts of violence makes her a cousin to Gide’s Lafcadio, albeit drained of all wit or charm.
Golding clearly wanted much for this novel, so much, in fact, that its complexity comes perilously close to mere complication. For example, before the kidnapping, Matty holds a kind of seance with Bell and Goodchild, his devotees. I won’t go into how it comes to be held in the room in which Sophy and Toni grew up. Bernard F. Dick, in his excellent study of William Golding, tries to rescue the book from charges that it strains credulity past bearing, and nearly succeeds. If Darkness Visible
is judged solely on a narrative basis, it would be like subjecting Twelfth Night or The Tempest to the standards of literary realism. Although Golding’s novels abound in realistic detail, they are not realistic novels; one does not “believe” in a Golding novel the way one believes in, say, Madame Bovary.
For Golding, it seems, his plot was but a point of departure, a hook on which to hang his meditation on the late 20th century world, the nature of evil, anomie, the divorce of heart from mind. Very well. I can accept this. But this means that, for all of Darkness Visible‘s undeniable riches, its narrative, that for which, when it comes down to it, we read novels, is subsumed under its own meanings. His characters become illustrations of arguments rather than agents of the actions, or even thoughts, Golding provides for them. Which is what makes Pedigree’s final moments so shattering. Faced with the awful prospect of redemption, he at once longs for its release and recoils from it in terror. After 260 pages, Golding at last exhausted his topic, and could afford this moment of true, human drama, of which our recognition is immediate and total. And it is worth all the rest combined.
I began my previous post, “Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s The Spire (part 1)”, with a quick rundown of the pitfalls of allegory, how it can grab a narrative by its throat, twist it about, and force it to kiss its own rectitude, and how it can make for lifeless characters whose only function is to represent a particular moral principal. Ever since publishing Lord of the Flies William Golding has regularly born the charge of failing to miss the banana peel at the edge of the allegorical pit. I then wrote about how The Spire (1964), his fifth published novel, is read by some as confirmation of this criticism (It is, after all, about building a “spire”, wink wink.), making his career, at least up to that point, a possible subject for an allegory about the “folly of good intentions”. Then I shared my own experience of actually reading it, how I had expected its flaws to skitter over the pages like medieval demons over the doorstep of a lost soul. But after two careful readings, I was unable to make any of the complaints adhere. Instead, I found it magnificent. Which means that if someone where to write an allegory about the virtue of “just appraisal” or “the giving of second chances”, the author might invent a character named “Snotnose, a reader with a blog”, and relate his comedown and subsequent redemption through a reading of Golding’s The Spire.
Salisbury Cathedral, visible from Golding's window at Bishop Wentworth's School for Boys, where he taught from 1939 to 1961 (with five years off for wartime service in the Royal Navy), was the inspiration and model for the catheral in THE SPIRE. Salisbury Cathedral's 404-foot spire is the tallest in Great Britain.
One of the ways Golding uses, and then transcends, allegory is through his portrayal of his protagonist. Jocelin is dean of a medieval English cathedral for which he believes God has commanded him to construct an impossibly tall spire. Like most who claim this kind of direct connection with God, he comes across as thoroughly glazed, eyes never dropping lower than the mid-distance. Lacking the gravitas of, say, Noah, he is dependent upon his position of authority to counter all challenges to this vision. His most vocal opponent is Roger Mason, his master builder, who recognizes the insanity of pressing onward and upward with the great stone phallus known to all, save Jocelin himself, as “Jocelin’s Folly”. Jocelin traps him with a narcissist’s acumen for detecting the weaknesses of those within his orbit. First, he cuts off the possibility of other, better, work for Roger and his men. Then, more deviously, he allows an affair to bloom between Roger and Goody Pangall, wife of an impotent and crippled verger. “She will keep him here,” he rationalizes. The affair has the double function of allowing him to distance himself from from his own stifling and stifled sexual desire. He treats the liaison, ultimately a lethal one, with a kind of willed blindness, perhaps his most salient attribute. As building progresses, and the menace of disaster looms ever larger, Jocelin proves a virtuoso of the blind eye turned. The cost of building materials, the alienation of his clergy, his spiritual duties to his “flock”, the paganism of the workmen, the mental dissolution of Roger, his own misbegotten position, even a case of human sacrifice in which the victim is walled into the foundation of the cathedral (an event Golding conveys with masterful ambiguity), all of it goes unmarked by the obsessed dean.
Golding uses his creation as would an allegorist, disallowing him that final measure of freedom, to fidget about and exhibit incongruities, that is the hallmark of more lifelike fictional characters. A more flexible and far-ranging novelist, like Patrick White, creates characters who are buffeted by the winds of their own consciousnesses, apparently separate from the author’s, and who experience such vicissitudes of circumstance and event that they can’t help but respond with vicissitudes of their own, emerging as essentially dignified agents, however flawed, of their own lives. By contrast, one never senses that, in the process of writing this book, Golding ever woke up wondering what stunt that crazy Jocelin was going to pull next. Rather, he brings his character into sharp focus solely through the lens of his sin. Pride, the deadliest of the famous seven, is referenced into everything he does, says, or thinks. But the sin itself, and any moralistic stance towards it, is not really Golding’s subject. More, it is the impetus to sin, and in The Spire the impetus is multiform, a miasma of sexual repression, physical disease, narcissistic scaffolding, spiritual fragility. Golding is willing to trade a measure of “realism” for a more concise and dramatically useful embodiment of these complex dynamics. Jocelin is guilty of pride, but is not Pride himself. He is more a figure from Greek myth than medieval allegory.
Mythic though he may be, Golding is too sophisticated a writer to allow a single reading of Jocelin. On the one hand, he is a narcissistic demon, oblivious to the lives he destroys. Golding’s rendering of him as such is subtle. To the criticism, mentioned in the previous post, that Golding has “seriously underwritten” his novel, showing characters and their settings in mere outline, I rejoin that he has, with a remarkably steady hand, drawn his readers into his protagonist’s consciousness. The Spire is what Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction) describes as a third-person narrator-agent novel, a third person novel whose central character so influences the action that he functions nearly as a first-person voice. Through the sparsity of the setting, and those outlines and gestures which pass for people, we see the world as Jocelin sees it. That is, we see the attenuation of all that does not immediately come to bare on his God-haunted vision.
On the other hand, Jocelin is the portrait of an artist. He confronts the modern Western reader with one of our culture’s most cherished archetypes: the Visionary. We are gluttons for stories about the artist-hero who, against all odds and opposition, and unlike most of us, remains true to his or her vision, seeing it through to its triumphant completion. (No matter how clear-eyed our world view, there is always a little Ayn Rand lurking behind a polyp in our soul.) While Jocelin brings destruction, not least of all to himself, he is also the agent of creation. His sin may be pride, but his virtue is a kind of simplicity, a singleness of purpose that any true artist must exhibit. Whatever is demonic in him, his faith is genuine, and it is It is not, I think, a spoiler to say that at the end of the novel, having undergone a highly ambivalent redemption in which he is, paradoxically, shorn of this very faith, together with his “vision”, Jocelin dies, but —his spire still stands.
I hope Golding sent at least an expensive bouquet of flowers to whoever talked him out of his original title, An Erection at Barcester, for he would have done his own vision a grave disservice.
"Round about the year 1200, Bishop Poore was standing on a hill overlooking the confluence of the local rivers, according to legend, when the mother of Jesus appeared to him, told him to shoot an arrow and build her a church where the arrow fell. The arrow flew more than a mile and fell in the middle of a swamp. There, with complete indifference to such things as health, foundations, access and general practicability, the cathedral was built. Eighty years later, with a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child's play, the builders erected the highest spire in the country on top of it, thousands of tons of lead and iron and wood and stone. Yet the whole building still stands. It leans. It totters. It bends. But it still stands...a perpetual delight, a perpetual wonder." ---William Golding, "An Affection for Cathedrals"
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