SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH – A BOLD CHOICE FOR THE NOBEL…OR IS IT?
Nobel laureates Theodor Mommsen, Rudolph Eucken, Henri Bergson, Bertrand Russell, and Winston Churchill have spent many decades receding from memory. To be sure, they are not altogether lost, a century and some is not long enough in the modern era for total erasure. Churchill’s name we know, albeit for other reasons. Russell’s and Bergson’s have a familiar echo. A few historians whose specialty is ancient Rome know something of Mommsen. Eucken has all but vanished. A dustier collection of books never hid along the nether reaches of the library stacks.
Today the Belorusian writer Svetlana Alexievich joined their ranks, becoming the sixth writer to be awarded the world’s most prestigious literary prize for work that is neither fiction, nor poetry, nor drama. That is to say, nothing of what is almost universally meant by “literature”. One would like to say that her being so honored could blow some of the dust off the other five’s books, renew interest in their achievements. It is not likely. One would also like to say that she will not share there fate, once a similar number of decades have past. This no one can say. What can be said is even within this small group, she is in a minority of one, winning not for history, or philosophy, but for journalism. More an occupation, you would be forgiven for thinking, than a literary pursuit, although many writers have done time as journalists. It seems ever more a thing of the past that an aspiring novelist, following the Hemingway model, would consent to an apprenticeship of investigative journalism to make ends meet during their early careers. So, on a list of eminences such as Peter Nadas, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Philip Roth, and Adam Zagajewski, all potential candidates for the Nobel, it is easy to view Alexievich’s work as déclassé. Admirable, to be sure, even important. But literature?
We should, perhaps, take another look. She is, after all, a writer. Voices from Chernobyl, and Zinky Boys are, in fact, books, and, by all accounts, the quality of the writing they exhibit is high and the formal innovation worthy of note. Further, they are books which shoulder the burden of their gravely difficult content without stumbling. In light of these considerations, perhaps we must confess a bias that begs challenging.
That said, the award of the day really should go to the Nobel committee itself for pulling off a bit of a stunt. They succeeded in being simultaneously progressive and conservative, edgy and drearily establishment. They have, on the one hand, cracked open the whole idea of what constitutes literature – and this is a very good thing as there are many great writers waiting on the margins (In a texting exchange with my friend Nathan yesterday, he asked why there has been such a buzz about a possible win for Svetlana Alexievich while no one is talking about Elena Poneiatowska. As with so many of the authors I hear about from Nathan, I had to google her. I learned that she is a Mexican journalist, winner of the hugely prestigious Cervantes Prize, who has, among her many and lofty credits, a book called La Noche de Tlatelocloco, containing testimonies of the victims of the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City. Thank you, Nathan, as always.)
So. Good for Stockholm. On the other hand, the choice of Alexievich harkens back to the blandest, most conservative interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s poorly worded will which stipulates that the award should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In the early years of the award the term “ideal direction” was interpreted to mean something like “edifying”, “uplifting”, “holding to high ideals”. Basically, it was set up to reward literature that was “good for you,” and, by implication, to penalize literature that was, somehow, not. And so, instead of giving the award to Emil Zola, Henrik Ibsen, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce, each of whose work was considered in one way or another unwholesome, the award went to writers startling in their mediocrity, like Karl Adolph Gjellerup “for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals”. Over the decades, the interpretation has shifted in various ways. Sometimes it has been taken to mean consonant to the great humanistic project, thereby enabling the committee to honor such worthy writers as Romain Rolland and Boris Pasternak. But however the committee interprets it, they are saddled with the idea of literature being taken in a particular “direction.” It is a hopelessly moralistic project, which, somehow, the very best writers to be honored – Shaw, Faulkner, Mann, Beckett, Marquez, Eliot, and a handful of others – have transcended. Or, conversely, the Swedish Academy itself has occasionally been able to transcended the limitations of Nobel’s will so as to perceive these writers as great artists, ideal or not.
The committee will claim that “idealism” is no longer a concern, that it is an outmoded criterion, and that only the “best” writing is considered. But listen to Permanent Secretary Sara Danius’s post-announcement comments about Svetlana Alexievich. She says that this remarkable writer has been involved in a project of “mapping the Soviet, and post-Soviet, individual,” of writing down “a history of the human being about whom we really didn’t know that much, at least not in this systematic manner,” of documenting “a history of emotions, a history of the soul, if you wish.” These are all extra-literary concerns, all driven by unassailable “ideals.”
I have not yet read Svetlana Alexievich’s books. I have no reason to doubt that she is a significant writer. She certainly seems to be an important one. Perhaps she is even a great one. I look forward to finding out.
At some point during the writing of Beloved (1987) a daemon gave Toni Morrison the following line: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Only a pedant would see two sentences here. It is one, albeit a rarity, requiring a full stop after the third word to create the frisson after the eighth. “124 was spiteful.” Stop. Your pulse quickens. “Full of a baby’s venom.” Stop. Your stomach drops. A comma simply wouldn’t do. Together, these two phrases comprise a first line equaled for power in American fiction only by “Call me Ishmael.” The book stands solidly behind this opening sally and has been integral to Morrison’s rise to prominence among Melville’s descendants.
Much of Beloved’s greatness inheres in it’s unabashed embrace of large themes. It’s point of departure is a catastrophe of classical concision: An escaped slave slays her infant to save it from re-capture. The baby refuses to accept this fate. The story, radiating both forward and backward from this event becomes, not an inditement of slavery – too banal a subject for an author of Morrison’s intelligence – but a tally of the awful cost of accepting freedom. No one dodges collection, and in the case of Sethe, the mother in question, the price is very nearly too high. The characters who live in the shadow of her tragedy go at their lives like figures leaping from Shakespeare, the Greek stage, or the Hebrew Scriptures. Denver, Sethe’s surviving daughter, deals by never setting foot outside the home, but in the end, like Miranda moored on Prospero’s island, she must discover a brave new world. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, is like Moses, whose faith buoys the multitudes but fails her at the border of the Promised Land. Paul D., Sethe’s mid-life lover, shares with Jonah the inability to escape the imperative of redemption. While Sethe is no Medea, it is hard to ignore a family resemblance; both are mothers in extremis who commit infanticide. And what of Beloved, the slain, the ghost at the heart of this ghost story? She is both terrifying and fragile. She knows something of Electra’s furry at a mother’s betrayal, but behaves like a heartsick vampire, feeding desperately, and so sadly, on her mother’s “too thick” love. Ultimately, she is as empty as Narcissus, a shell animated by the only real haunting power in the novel – the past.
Toni Morrison’s use of language has been called poetic, lyrical, baroque. These descriptors can be misleading as they often bring to mind a torqued, extended, or otherwise heightened syntax which, while not unknown to her, is not a defining trait. I think what readers who invoke these adjectives are responding to is not so much her sentence-by-sentence choices of language as her way of constructing a narrative. At her best, she is wonderfully oblique. Her reader may understand every word but have to ponder just what has been communicated. The result is not confusion, but suspense. Here is Sethe and Denver near the beginning of Beloved after trying, and failing, to reason with the ghost of the infant, as yet only a tantrum-prone shimmer:
“For a baby she throws a powerful spell,” said Denver.
“No more powerful than the way I loved her,” Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I’ll do it for free.
Not to put too fine a point on punctuation, but notice the lack of a comma between “Sethe answered” and “and there it was again.” It is a move as subtle as a film director’s choice in the direction of a pan shot. What follows is a memory. At first we’re not sure of what, but that it doesn’t merit even a comma’s worth of separation from the present tells us that we are mid-stream in a torrent. We try to get our bearings. When we realize that Sethe traded sex with the stonecutter for the carving of the single word, “Beloved”, on the headstone of her infant, the fact that she took time to notice the fingernail pink and glitter of the stone against which she leaned raises our neck hairs. Significantly, the only mention of a grave in this passage is in a stark reversal of the usual implication of parted knees. And the cool of the headstone? It was welcoming? Here we go. For Morrison at her best, style is strategy.
It is a strategy which has made Toni Morrison, at her best, among the most powerful writers in American literature. When she falls short of her best, she still fascinates, if only for the spotlight her misses shine on their own divergence from her hits. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, published in April this year, contains so many elements of her best work it’s like an account sheet of a legacy: Here is the turbulent past acting on the present; a protagonist at war with herself; sex, both destructive and healing; and, sure to delight, the incursion of the supernatural. Everything is set to become a dazzling Morrisonian feast. And by the time the reader comes to the last page – the ingredients have remained ingredients. The master chef, it seems, has lost the courage to cook.
It is the story of a young woman in distress. Bride, born with skin as dark as genetically possible, finds her way through life by measuring the response her striking appearance elicits in others, much as a bat maneuvers by echolocation. Because the genetics of her dramatic coloring are obscure, her light-skinned father assumes the infidelity of her mother and abandons them. Her mother, in thrall to the insidious color ranking system within the black community, is a “high yellow”, and finds her daughter’s “Sudanese black” skin repellent. So much so that she won’t even allow her to call her “mother”, insisting instead on the sobriquet, “Sweetness”.
The defining event of Bride’s early life is a court case against a teacher charged with collaborating in child molestation. Bride (né Lula Ann) is brought in as a key witness. She tells the court what she hopes will elicit love from her unloving mother. The consequence of her choice redounds to the fictional present. Against her mother’s expectations, she grows into a stunning beauty. She rises through the ranks of a cosmetics company and is on the verge of launching her own line, which she calls “YOU, GIRL”. Ironically, she sells her image by wearing no makeup at all, nothing to mute her startling blackness, thereby commodifying the genetics her mother so hated. Like most of Morrison’s protagonists, she is not a thinker, existing by and for her passions. When she can no longer live with the damage caused by her court testimony, she thinks in grade-school equations: she did something bad, so she’ll do something good to cancel it out. When her gesture of what she imagines to be reconciliation is not received as such, she is knocked out. Literally. Around this time she falls for Booker, a sexy drifter with violence in his own past, a peculiarly old-school taste for jazz and trumpet playing, and a penchant for the Western literary canon. She shows a nearly pathological lack of curiosity about him until he leaves her with the words, “You not the woman I want.” In a turn for the bizarre, she begins losing body parts, first ear piercings and pubic hair, then breasts and menstrual cycle. Compounding the strangeness, only she seems to notice.
Physically, Bride, at least when fully assembled, is at home in the company of Morrison’s perennial bombshells. It’s not hard to imagine Sula (Sula), Hagar (Song of Solomon), Jade (Tar Baby) Dorcus (Jazz), Grace (Paradise), Junior (Love), and Bride circling, chewing their cheeks at each other. Spiritually, Bride is not their equal. Even the weakest of these have more pizzaz. Grace, like most of the characters in Paradise, is not memorable, but she inhabits her voluptuousness in a way Bride does not, setting the town of Ruby ablaze with lust and resentment. Junior is almost visionary in her amorality, swinging her hips through the Baby Jane-esque cast of Love, brilliantly self-preserving, seducing even the dead. Bride has no such amplitude.
Superficially, her closest predecessor is Jade from Morrison’s often neglected Tar Baby. Both use their beauty to get ahead in the image industries, Jade as a model, Bride in cosmetics. Disinclined to be revolutionaries, they each believe that the way to access the privileges on the far side of the color divide is to play the white game and win. Here ends the similarity. Jade is by far the more complex character. Her beauty is paired with a restless intelligence. When the handsome and provocative Son disrupts her white-sponsored life, her conflict is fraught, resisting simplistic resolution. She is beggared by the ferocious sexual charge between them, but counters with an equally fierce independence. Does she come to consciousness? Yes. But also no. Which is to say she does what she can, which is what human beings, and masterly characters in novels, do.
By comparison, Bride’s journey, from a rather clichéd obsession with image to the equally clichéd realization that she must learn to love herself, feels sophomoric. The moral swells while the elements of story attenuate. Unlike Jade’s passionately engaged ambition, or Milkman’s (Song of Solomon) leaving behind his proud father to discover his father’s mythic past, or the devastation which Sethe must learn to release, Bride’s materialism lacks a lustiness worthy of the drama of forsaking. To what does she cling? What does she even have? Only her career, which she ditches as thoughtlessly as an empty lipstick tube.
We rarely see her interact with her environment. For that matter, she is barely given an environment to interact with. Morrison moves her characters through a curiously abstracted space. But this is appropriate, given that she is a curiously abstracted character. She seems more to represent than to live. She represents a certain kind of Black response to the American Dream. She represents the plight of children of disturbed and unloving parents. We are told that she is sexual, but the evidence for it within her character is so dilute that it remains a construct, as if Morrison reasoned that this type of character, representing the unexamined American life, often comes with a strong sexual component and so, as a novelist, she should probably refer to it. Even Morrison’s famous language turns leaden here. In a monologue, Morrison has Bride tell us that her own sex life “…became sort of like Diet Coke—deceptively sweet minus nutrition. More like a PlayStation game imitating the safe glee of virtual violence and just as brief.” While it is not a stretch to imagine Bride forgoing an apparently nutritious regular soda in favor of a diet soda, what, really, has she to do with PlayStations? These allusions to niche interests in contemporary American culture fall flat (like an open can of Diet Coke sitting in the sun?) because they have little connection to the character doing the alluding. They have the floundering sound of an author trying to bring her work into an American present with which she is out of touch.
Morrison may have recognized her character’s hollowness. Bride’s curious physical reversion seems like an attempt to at once drum up some physicality for her while adding to the didacticism of the parable. In the past, Morrison has made masterly use of the “magically real”: the marigolds that refused to grow in The Bluest Eye, Circe’s impossible longevity and Pilot’s lack of a navel in Song of Solomon, Sula’s consciousness of her own death, and, of course, Beloved’s haunting. These touches at once startle and seem fundamentally right, even necessary. They evoke spiritual forces with which the characters contend without ever descending to explanation. By contrast, Bride’s loss of her breasts is not so much startling as jarring, an underlined metaphor for her loss of identity, all but italicized in boldface when she herself comes down with “the scary suspicion that she was changing back into a little black girl.” And when, pedantically, her breasts return, the moment is less revelatory than slapstick. A character’s hair catches fire, so Bride whips off her top to smother the flames and discovers her bosoms are back. She has what is for her a moment of complexity: “But it was hard to suppress her glee, even though she was slightly ashamed at dividing her attention between the sad sight of Queen’s slide into the back of the ambulance and the magical return of her flawless breasts.” The word that rings in this rather forced sentence is “flawless”, making the developing human tragedy here come off as a pretext for the return of the tits. It’s hard to quell the suspicion that Morrison is confessing her own “slight shame” at her divided authorial attention.
Much of the second half of the book follows Bride’s search for Booker. His trail leads her from the city to the country. In a monologue, her co-worker and pseudo-friend, Brooklyn, chastises Bride’s cowardice: “But for you it’s ‘Wah, wah, I had to run…’ Where to? In some place where there is no real stationary or even a postcard? Bride, please.” Setting aside the reference to anachronistic writing material by a woman supposedly of the Instagram generation, I found a sympathetic sentiment rising to my own lips, though directed more at the author than the character: The city verses the country? Please. I might have felt differently if the city stood for something less prosaic than the wealth and image Bride had been chasing, or the country the simplicity her life needs to recover balance. But Morrison allows these locales, and their inhabitants, to become, not archetypes, like the neighborhood of “the Bottom” in the wondrous Sula, but stereotypes, right down to the aging Simon-and-Garfunkel-singing off-the-grid hippie couple who take Bride in when she breaks her ankle by crashing her Jaguar into a tree. Is this tongue and cheek? It doesn’t seem so.
A lot has been made of the book’s focus on the sexual abuse of children. But it can’t really be said that the book is about this. Not in the sense that Beloved is about the manifold iterations of slavery and the difficulty of freedom. Child molestation, while heinous beyond words, lacks, as a theme, the philosophical weight of the slavery/freedom dialectic. It resists abstraction, quite rightly, and is therefore ill-suited to metaphor. Despite it’s prominent place in God Help the Child, it lacks urgency, coming across, instead, as bombast. If I didn’t have such respect for Morrison, I would say that she walks a fine moral line in her use of it in this book, for that is what it seems she has done: use it, rather than explore it. Without the weight the subject carries, her characters would float off the page. The shape of their lives is explained solely in terms of the lurid, headline grabbing experiences of their childhoods. Because the line of causation is so clear, so relevant, so unarguable, and because there is so little else to them, they often seem reduced to case studies. And since nearly every character has an occurrence to relate the charge of any single case peters out. This tempts the reader towards detachment, a feeling we are never permitted in The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s overwhelming first novel and first treatment of sexual predation against children. In that book, every breath we take we take with Pecola Breedlove and the pain of it shoots through us.
Let it not be said that God Help the Child is without a sense of outrage. It’s here in spades, to be shared with any reader whose moral compass is in working order. But outrage is not thought, and as an emotion it lacks depth. As in life, feeling outraged by what one reads in a work of fiction can be a distraction, or, worse, a trick: one must think well, mustn’t one, of an opportunity to look squarely and righteously at a hard reality? Therefore this book must surely be a good one.
A technique found throughout the Morrison oeuvre is the monologue. She used it to greatest symphonic effect in Jazz, where the opening voice – is it the author? is it God? is it the pages of the book itself? – both generates and is engendered by all that transpires in the novel. In God Help the Child, the monologue has become an expedience. Why shoulder the burden of furthering the story through telling incident, character interaction and dialogue? Far easier to simply have the characters tell the reader what’s going on with them. Towards the end of the novel, Booker tells us in a monologue:
Bride probably knows more about love than I do. At least she’s willing to figure it out, do something, risk something and take its measure. I risk nothing. I sit on a throne and identify signs of imperfection in others. I’ve been charmed by my own intelligence and the moral positions I’ve taken, along with the insolence that accompanies them. But where is the brilliant research, the enlightening books, the masterpieces I used to dream of producing? Nowhere. Instead I write notes about the shortcomings of others. Easy. So easy.
Except that Morrison has indeed produced masterpieces, Booker here presents the most cogent and concise critique of her as the author of this book.
When Toni Morrison began publishing novels in 1970, she did something few American writers have ever done, either before or since, not even William Faulkner: she produced, out of the gate and in succession, three masterpieces, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). The third belongs to the heritage of world literature. Her forth, Tar Baby (1981) lacks the mythic power of the first three, but is still a fiercely intelligent work with passages of stunning beauty. Then, in 1987, she published a second Everest, Beloved. After this came Jazz (1992), a perplexing, often gorgeous experiment, less approachable than its predecessors, but with sufficient brilliance to make it recognizably from the same original mind. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize. All that she had produced up to then made this a ringer for Stockholm.
Of the five novels she has written since, only one, A Mercy (2008) approaches some of the beauty of those first six. Paradise (1998) is tedious. Love (2003), for all it’s good writing, is airless, humorless, lacking scope. Her two latest novels, Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015) are thin books in every sense. Both scream their hot but circumscribed issues over the weak voices of their characters, more ideograms than personalities. As literary constructions they feel thrown together, as if Morrison filled a file with a certain amount of sketch work then got tired and convinced herself she’d written enough.
What has happened here? How did a great writer become a writer of decidedly minor books? Some critics feel the shift happened as early as Beloved, when she began viewing herself as a spokeswoman more than an author, when addressing issues became more important than writing literature. It is often noted that she has become grand where once she had been brave. Still, what happened? I expose myself as hopelessly outré, I know, by positing the daemon theory. I think she has one, and that it helped her produce an early run of stunning books. It gave her that opening line, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” It made her one of the most revered American authors of the century. But it has now revealed itself as one of those nasty sorts who holds to the busybody notion that all good things must exist in balance. And so this latest book weighs in, and all I can say is God help God Help the Child.
Always the tradeoff: If I’m reading copiously, I have less time to write. In lieu of a proper post, here is a rundown on what I’ve been reading, and a teaser for the posts I hope it will produce.
1. In April Toni Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, will be released. In anticipation, I’ve begun a chronological read-through of her work. This past month I’ve revisited her three early novels: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). Coming to them again after many years, I find I can read them without the distraction of bedazzlement. I already know that, at her best – of which these three are solid representatives – she is among the greatest of American writers. I have also read enough of her over the years to know that she is not always at her best. A Mercy, for example, was stunning, while its successor, Home, was thin. I’m now reading Tar Baby, a novel which I disliked when I read it something like twenty years ago. I’m eager to see how my reading of it has changed over time. After this comes Beloved, among the handful of novels that changed my understanding of what a novel could do to the heart and mind of a reader. Look for further accounts of my survey of her work.
2. One of my favorite authors, Saul Bellow, has his centenary coming up on June 10th. In December I read Herzog for the first time and realized that a first reading of this book is a bit like a first coat of paint on an unprimed wall, no way for one mind to cover what is to be covered here, not in one go. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is next up for me and I can’t wait. I am currently reading his collection of essays, It All Adds Up, and feeling myself in the presence of one of the great, loving, advocates for the modern mind; he wraps a strong and affirming arm around around my intellectual shoulders and says, “You can so go at the world like this.” I’ve read the opening essay on Mozart several times before and every time find its defense of the idea of transcendence positively joyous. More about him for sure!
3. I have long known of the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti, but until this month, I had never read him. For Christmas I gave my friend Nathan a copy (in Spanish of course) of his novel El Astillero (The Shipyard) and told him to let me know when he was ready to read it so I could find an English translation and read it with him. Early in February he gave the word. It’s a fairly short book whose pages, I found, seem to multiply as each one is turned. Slow, dense, deeply melancholy, brilliant, handily outstripping the more famous European existentialists in existential sorrow. A few days ago, Nathan texted me from the used bookstore where he works to tell me he had found a copy of another Onetti book, Bodysnatcher, and should he hold it for me. It now sits atop the pile by my bed. From the one book I’ve read so far, and the feel of this next book, I am persuaded that he is one of the great, neglected writers of the the 20th century, fully deserving of a Nobel prize that never arrived for him. He should not be missed.
4. In December I read Naked Masks, a collection of five plays by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, a genius who has never achieved quite the securely canonical standing of, say, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, or Synge. They are grim, funny, brainy, unnerving dramas, which, even after nearly a century show the fringes of the experimental cloth from which they were cut. The most famous is Six Characters In Search of an Author. My favorite is Henry IV. After reading them I found myself wishing with all my heart that I lived in a time and a place where these plays would be performed.
5. I’m hoping this will be the year I complete a reading of the novels of Patrick White. I spent most of January reading his huge, bitter, writhing The Vivisector. It will take me another month or two to catch my breath before moving on to The Eye of the Storm. I’m terribly curious to see the 2011 movie made from this novel by Australian director Fred Schepisi. It stars Geoffrey Rush, Charlotte Rampling, and Judy Davis. Twitchy, grisly fun, I expect.
I hope this update persuades you that 2015 promises to be a rich year here at The Stockholm Shelf. Check back soon!
I try to imagine them meeting in Paris: the young Pär Lagerkvist and Gertrude Stein. He, a Swede of peasant stock, shock of blond hair, taciturn not even the word for his humming inwardness. She, agate-eyed, operatic in force and figure, Alice in tow, compelling him to come furrow his Nordic brow at the three Juan Gris paintings she’s just purchased. What an awakening it must have been for him – this woman, this modern art – comparable, perhaps, to his discovery of the work of Charles Darwin while at the gymnasium not so many years earlier. That prior awakening had precipitated, or at least correlated with, a radical turn from the pietistic religion of his parents to an ardent, agnostic socialism. He and a small group of likeminded students would meet on Sunday mornings, as the church bell tolled in the little town of Växjö, in southern Sweden, where he’d grown up, to discuss Thomas Huxley, Flammarion, and Kropotkin. In Paris, he sees, there would have been no need for such statement making. Paris. And this woman! These paintings!
However I try, I can’t quite imagine this meeting, at least not without it coming off as a kind of mental cartoon in need of a caption. Stein, fundamentally large, the Empress of the avant guard, the quintessential American in Paris, seems formed of such different material from the bony young Scandinavian, practically born with intimations of mortality, looking like the mold from which any number of Bergman characters would later be cast. And yet, however unlikely, this meeting apparently happened, or so I read in the introduction to Evening Land, a volume of Lagerkvist’s late poems. I read that the art to which she exposed him – expressionism, cubism, naivism – influenced his early breakthrough in style far more than anything in literature.
Pär Lagerkvist’s life seems to have been haunted by two enormities: God and Death. In his autobiographical novel, Guest of Reality, the principal character is a boy named Anders. Anders is born into a fiercely protestant family in which the Bible is one of the few books in the house. He becomes so obsessed with his fear of death that on a rainy day he takes himself to a flat stone in the forest to pray for the life of each member of his family. After a terrifying vision of a ghost locomotive rushing into the night in a spray of sparks, he comes to believe that the world of his father, in which all things were secure and certain under the certainty of God, was not real, and not his. Instead, “It just hurtled, blazing into the darkness that had no end.”
It would prove to be an irrevocable divide for Pär, this longing for God while watching the very idea of God recede beyond possibility.
If you believe in god and no god exists then your belief is an even greater wonder Then it is really something inconceivably great.
Why should a being lie down there in the darkness crying to someone who does not exist?
Why should that be? There is no one who hears when someone cries in the darkness. But why does that cry exist?
Some of his very first writings were explorations of this divide. In 1912, before Paris, Stein, cubism, he wrote a piece for a Socialist magazine in which he envisioned a young hunter who catches sight of a woman by a spring. The hunter’s feelings are divided: He both yearns for her and wants to withdraw from her. He follows her, keeping himself hidden. When she reappears at the spring, he decides to kiss her, only to discover that, like Narcissus, he has kissed nothing but his own image in the water. He is completely alone. Lagerkvist called this Gudstanken: the idea of God.
The woman, the hunter, and the spring, would reappear four and a half decades later in his novel The Sybil. This time the story is told by the woman. She is the chosen mouthpiece of a mysterious and powerful god. On feast days, pilgrims arrive by the hundreds at the temple with requests for prophecy. She enters a drug-induced trance during which the voice of the god erupts from her in inchoate shrieks and groans, which the priests then interpret. It becomes evident to her that they interpret in such a way as will benefit themselves and the economy of the town. She becomes a prophetess without faith. One day, walking through the woods, she arrives at a spring. She finds there a beautiful young man. Instead of a hunter, he is a one-armed soldier, and this time they meet, and fall in love. Their love becomes a god in which she can believe. When she becomes pregnant, she is expelled from the temple and banished forever from the town. The soldier, who had ceased loving her after witnessing her orgiastic convulsions at the temple, is discovered dead in a nearby stream. The child she bears grows up to be helpless and mute, forever an infant. In the end, he too leaves her, vanishing into the snowy peaks. And so she looses, at the same time, both a god of power and a god of love, and is left with what, at best, could be called a god of absence, and at worst, malevolence. But the god she longs for —that god does not exist.
For Lagerkvist, this divide, this longing for a nonexistent god, would itself become a kind of faith, if one accepts Paul Tillich’s term for faith as ultimate concern. “I am a believer without a faith,” he wrote, “a religious atheist. I understand Gethsemane, but not the jubilation over the victory.” But his work would show that he did have a kind of faith, a faith in the longing itself, as indicated by that subtly ecstatic final question of his poem, “But why, does that cry exist?” The asking belies a love that it does.
Recently, I re-read Barabbas, the novel by which, if by any, Lagerkvist is generally known to readers in English. It is his imagining of the life of the world’s most famous bailed criminal. Beginning with his uncomprehending witness of the crucifixion, it traces his journey, not to faith, but near it, and into the ultimate, inscrutable dark. I found myself perplexed by Lagerkvist’s simple, almost naive, approach to the writing of this tale, wondering how he achieved such formidable drama. I think it is because of his love for that cry. It is the cry of one divided. In Lagerkvist’s vision, Barabbas, the man who cannot believe, burns with the greatest passion of all for God, or an idea of God to sustain him. That he never finds it is, paradoxically, his final grace; what would he have become if he had become, at last, peaceful? His eventual death at the hands of the Romans would, in the end, have had no more significance than that of any of the assured believers around him. Instead, he pays, by choice, the ultimate price for a God in whom he longs to believe but doesn’t, with no one to hear his “cries in the darkness.”
May my heart’s disquiet never vanish. May I never be at peace. May I never be reconciled to life, nor to death either. May my path be unending, with death its unknowable goal.
Fascinated, I read in quick succession The Sybil and The Dwarf, and found in each, as in Barabbas, a captivating protagonist, each different from the others in every way, save for an un-ironic seriousness through which they engage their ironic worlds. Each longs for God, or a stand-in for God, and fails to find either.
I wanted to know more. I had not known that Lagerkvist was a playwright, apparently a great one, considered the successor of Ibsen and Strindberg. Nor that he was one of a small handful of poets to bring Swedish poetry into the modern era. For a little over a week now I’ve had by my side Evening Land (Aftonland), his final collection of poems, published in 1953, and happily translated by W. H. Auden. I find in them a voice so potent I am amazed to have never come across his poetry before. He appears in none of my anthologies. Surely, he is no Tranströmer, lacking the later poet’s power of image and, what? levitation? But I now understand how Tranströmer would not have been Tranströmer without Lagerkvist.
One poem stopped me cold. It may be among the greatest statements of faith I have read by a modern poet:
I wanted to know but was only allowed to ask, I wanted light but was only allowed to burn I demanded the ineffable but was only allowed to live.
I complained, but nobody understood what I meant.
To ask. To burn. To live. This, in the end is all one is permitted. It is not, as it nearly sounds, an Eastern approach to enlightenment, for the payoff is patently not equanimity. The revelation here is that one must do these things with or without one to accompany.
I think that for Pär Lagerkvist, turning from God to Darwin, then to Picasso and Braque, was never really a turn from God in the first place, but rather a turning towards his own longing. I have no idea what kind of encounter he had with Gertrude Stein, or if there was any ensuing connection between them. But he must have seen in her another who, though she may never have said so, was, like him, longing for God. For what is the thirst for art and the far reaches of language if not a demand for the ineffable?
The American composer and voluminous diarist, Ned Rorem, made the following entry in his Nantucket Diary, dated 17 October, 1985:
“When it comes to prizes there is no right choice, although with hindsight every choice can seem inevitable. Most witnesses are uncomfortable, especially the losers, and even the Nobel Prize is a raffle. In honoring Claude Simon the Nobelists now show themselves to admire the trend of form over content which has been festering in all French art for three decades, and which at its most extreme becomes the very definition of decadence. It makes me sad. If they had to choose a Frenchman, why not Simenon?”
In the previous entry Rorem recounts a discussion with a friend about the pleasures of the prolific Georges Simenon, known for his hugely popular detective novels. Positing Simenon (who, for the record, was Belgian) as a Nobel contender is clearly intended to be cute. Simple fun, perhaps, with the closeness of the names. But Rorem’s real subject here is the commonplace that institutions which bestow awards have biases which can make their choices perplexing to those who don’t share them. The Nobel Committee has been coy about a wide range of them over its 113 years. Certainly this year’s award, to Patrick Modiano, another Frenchman, raises again this by now rather tired problem which, any more, is good for an easy, if not terribly interesting, diary entry. But when Rorem blithely tosses an author like Claude Simon onto the apparent trash heap of the whole post-World War Two French artistic enterprise, it smacks of posing.
First of all, I’m not exactly sure who he’s lumping Simon with. Perhaps he had in mind the painter Yves Klein, who instructed beautiful nude women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll around on his canvases. As a composer, he could be thinking of Pierre Boulez whose Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) pits hyper-serialization against improvisation, at the expense of the uninitiated listener. Writer and mathematician Raymond Queneau, founder of the influential literary movement Oulipo, and Modiano’s acknowledged mentor, was at work in “all of French art” at the time; his Exercices de Style tells one story – a man runs into a stranger twice on the same day – in 99 different ways. And then there is cinema. The Nouvelle Vague. Really, Mr. Rorem?
No one could argue that form wasn’t a primary concern for these French artists. But, on that account, to dismiss them and their work out of hand, and a rather high one at that, is careless. It ignores the water in which these fish were swimming. In a world new to the idea of total annihilation by human initiative, a world forever to be haunted by Auschwitz, and a country which, “for the sake of form”, had been cravenly complicit with real and evident evil, and which, as if in response to its own shame, was narcotizing on the vestiges of empire (Algeria), a broken capitalism, and an increasingly indulgent consumerism, form was of the essence. As the students of May, 1968, knew, the forms were broken. Fervid formal experimentation, far from being a sign of decay, was the only morally viable artistic response. Form was the content. To a certain extent, it always had been, but never before had this been so widely understood. Unless it be, perhaps, in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s, in which case Mr. Rorem might wish to be mindful of which side of the argument he pursues.
If formal experimentation in art were a crime, Claude Simon would certainly have been charged, convicted and sentenced. He is usually associated with a group of French novelists writing in the decades after the Second World War known as the nouveaux romanciers. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Natalie Sarraute, and especially Margurite Duras are more familiar names to readers in English, even though Simon was the only one of this loose fellowship to garner a Nobel. There are more differences than similarities among them, but they shared the common cause of attempting to transcend the received nineteenth century parameters of fiction, such as the centrality of plot, setting, character, and motivation. As with Boulez’s music, their books can seem difficult to the uninitiated. At its best, their writing can be starkly, startlingly beautiful, if, unavoidably, cerebral.
Claude Simon’s gorgeous final novel, The Trolley (2001), published when he was eighty eight, is all of these, and something more —it is haunting. To open this book is to find time splintering. On one page we read the impressions, or memories of impressions, of a young boy growing up in a coastal town in France, just after the First World War. On the next, an old man, presumably the same boy now in a stare-down with the end of his life, gives a somber, almost hallucinatory account of time spent in a modern hospital. A beginning and an ending, between which yawns an immense lacuna —the life lived. The novel is slim, where we feel it should, by rights, be long.
To speak of its form: The Trolley belongs to a sub-species of novel which doesn’t seem to be a novel at all. Memoir, meditation, travelogue, history, essay — these can seem more apt designations. It is in good company. W. G. Sebald, for example, in The Rings of Saturn, his grand investigation of entropy and loss, casts a wide net, gathering into his narrative hull the writings of the 17th century doctor Thomas Browne, the silk worms of the Chinese imperial court, and the personal lives of historical figures such as Roger Casement and Charles Algernon Swindburne. The narrator seems to be the author himself, and what he shares of himself has the ring of of autobiography. The photographs, grainy, melancholy, distributed throughout the pages contribute to the impression of a documentary, rather than fictive reality. But this itself is it’s fiction. J. M. Coetzee’s Summer Time is written as a biography of a writer named John Coetzee, whose salient distinction from the author himself is that he is deceased. Among the strangest and most brilliant recent examples of this kind of un-novel is Australian novelist Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, in which a subtle and poignant portrait of the artist emerges from a close examination of the unwritten lives of characters from his life in reading, and even from his own books.
In The Trolley, objects, scenes, episodes, and characters are observed, often at dauntingly close range, but are never manipulated through a plot. Which is not to say there is no story, but it is a story the reader constructs. For example, we are shown a garden with an iris border. It is an old, established garden with full-grown trees. It belongs to the narrator’s aunt and uncle on his father’s side, the family to whom he and his mother came after his father was, we infer, killed in the War. We are shown his mother lying on a chaise longue in this garden. She is sick. Later, we are shown the same garden, the same chaise longue, minus his mother. No plot here, but, most assuredly, a story. Even a cursory perusal of Claude Simon’s biography makes it apparent that this story is, or in every important way seems to be, his own.
Contrary to Simon’s reputation as a “difficult” writer, the writing here is not difficult. True, one has need of a healthy attention span to track with his immense, drifting sentences, but the language with which he fills these sentences attains a luminous, sometimes distressing, clarity. For example, we might almost wish for a filter through which to read his memory of the dour maid who tended his dying mother:
That same long Erinye’s face permanently stamped with an expression of outrage which she seemed never to leave off, whether caring for Maman with a sort of fierce tenderness or (suddenly appearing in the dim kitchen, leaning over the flickering glow of the flames) contemplating the torments of those rats she was burning alive (which, reported by the children, was strictly forbidden — despite which (but without witnesses) she doubtless continued doing), or again, still outraged and inflexible for all our pleading and tears, killing one after the other the kittens of her cat’s incessant litters, flinging them violently against the courtyard wall, picking up the tiny sticky balls of bloody hair if they still moved, flinging them against the wall again and then dumping them on the compost heap out of a basket which she then rinsed several times until there was no trace of blood left in it.
For all the violence here, it is that rinsing of the basket that most horrifies. Her tidying up, washing away all traces of the act, renders banal the preceding brutality, something brutality should never be. And it has the added effect of making this intimate horror echo against the great monuments of horror rising from a horrific century.
It is this kind of detail, banal on the surface, with which the book abounds. The novel’s opening paragraph, for example, begins with a close observation of the streetcar which the narrator road, as a boy, between school and the seaside community of tawdry mansions where his aunt and uncle lived. So close is this observation, in fact, that what we actually see first, without knowing quite what we’re looking at, is the dial in the streetcar’s cab. The “lens” pulls back to reveal the accelerator lever to which the needle corresponds, then further to encompass, not the hand, but the palm of the hand of the conductor managing the lever. Toward the end of the paragraph we are told that most of the varnish has worn off the handle of this lever, leaving the wood unprotected, and we begin to wonder how long this can go on. In the hands of a lesser writer, such grinding accumulation could quickly sink to indulgence. But the effect here is more akin to looking through a kind of personal Hubble telescope, not into the knowable universe, but the author’s own “deep field”. The image of the galaxies in that now famous dime-sized patch of sky confronts us with the sober knowledge that what we can directly experience of the universe approaches a statistical zero, and even that zero is revoked at death. This is the sensibility with which Simon presents the streetcar lever and its varnishless handle. “This existed”, he’s telling us – his urgency shimmers – as if trying to make a record of everything, knowing that, even late in his ninth decade, “everything” won’t, finally, be very much.
Death is a constant in this book, the rats and kittens being a stand-in for death on a larger scale, rarely seen but always in the offing. His father’s death precedes the narrative, and, though barely mentioned, is generative of all that follows. There are the physically and psychically decimated survivors of the War who, besides aimlessly pedaling go-carts around a stone monument at the town center, intensify the loss of those, perhaps luckier, who, like Simon’s father, didn’t survive. His mother’s death, alluded to rather than recounted, changes everything again.
But it is his proximity to his own death that provides the most salient structural element in the novel. The perpetual incursion of one time frame into another is a characteristic feature in all of Simon’s writing. In this case, his hospitalization late in life continually interrupts the narrative of his childhood. These incursions make up for what drama is lost by his eschewal of the more traditional buildup of tension through plot. For example, a memory from his boyhood, in which he is running to catch the trolley after school, follows on the heals of an episode in the modern emergency room to which he has been transported by ambulance, “a sort of coffin”; so when we see him breathlessly watching the missed trolley disappear around a corner, we already know that, in something like seven decades, there will be one very important ride he will not miss, and both scenes acquire a luminosity they would not otherwise achieve, and the metaphor of the trolley, carrying its passengers across the length of its finite line, comes into its own without ever a moment of underlining. The weight of this slim book owes, not to novelistic expansiveness, but to this kind of juxtaposition.
Another of Simon’s favorite techniques is the recurring image. In The Flander’s Road it is the half buried carcass of a horse. In The Grass it is a T of light cast through half-closed shutters onto an interior wall of a dying woman’s room. In The Trolley it is a woman on a hospital bed whom the narrator glimpses lying in the room opposite his. These images often hold a paradox. The horse, for example, is in an advanced stage of decomposition and buried in mud in spite of the fact that it can only have been dead about three, completely rainless, days. The paradox presented by the hospitalized woman is that her thick, well-kept blond hair, rosy complexion, and comparative youth don’t square with her lifeless, mask-like face. Not one to look for meaning, the narrator must, nonetheless, look for something, and so he looks for parallels. In her final appearance, she is on a bed designed to transport patients being wheeled away by two male nurses while the other patients on the ward look on. He sees in this somber procession a parallel to the parading of a saint’s effigy on a litter during a religious holiday. Then, at more length, he recalls witnessing a funeral procession in Benares, in which the cadaver, laid out on a litter, was borne, above a crowd of mourners, on the shoulders of two muscular men to the banks of the Ganges to be burned. He makes these parallels more or less explicit simply by their proximity to the image of the blond woman. More subtle is the parallel to his own mother’s face as she lies, slowly dying, on the chaise longue in his aunt and uncle’s garden. The two images, which never touch within the pages of the novel, call to each other, drawing the novel’s two dominant time frames into association. They orbit one another.
Reading The Trolley, one is aware of reading, not so much a novel, as an approach to the novel. This, in Rorem’s view, is what makes Simon, or artists like him, decadent. He clearly has in mind the word’s common implication of moral decline. But, as an aesthetic, all it really means is a preference for artifice over nature. In other words, the artist is happy to let you know he or she is up to something. There is a widespread, righteous criticism that praises the “artless”, the work in which the artist brilliantly hides or disguises all his scaffolding, so that the one receiving the work forgets that he or she is in the presence of a work of art at all. There are many pleasures in this approach. Marilynne Robinson writes like this, never calling attention to the weapon with which she quietly slays her readers. But there are equally great pleasures in the works of artists who want you to know that what they are making is art. Imagine a crestfallen Virginia Woolf whose readers never recognized that To The Lighthouse had significantly extended the reach of the form. I remember, as a twenty-year-old, reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, then saying to a friend, my age but wiser, “But people don’t really talk like that to one another.” To which he replied, “But, perhaps they should.”
Simon’s artifice laid bare the artifice readers had been accepting, unchallenged, for more than a century (Simon himself pointed out that such readers had apparently missed Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner). In The Trolley, the shifting time frames, the fragmentary presentation of memories and impressions, the protracted sentences, all make off with the reader’s habitual question, “what happens next?”. With causality out of the picture, the reader is invited to consider how else the presented elements of the narrator’s life might be related. This amounts to a deeper way of reading. One pauses at the spaces where, like in poetry, the frisson happens. This is not a matter of form over content. It’s a different kind of content.