Thursday, September 29, 2011

Adam, One Afternoon by Italo Calvino

Adam, One Afternoon is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino. The early stories are whimsical, mostly light, but as the collection goes on they grow gradually darker. An almost bucolic peace gives way to war and war ushers in a sense of harshness, of difficulty. Later, the wartime scenarios disappear, but that sense of harshness remains.

Most of the stories are based on Calvino’s experiences in the Second World War, in which he fought for the partisans of the Garibaldi Bridgade against the Germans. The stories, written early in his career, are largely neo-realist: Calvino described neo-realism as a “literature of war” and the collective voice of a generation, those brought up under the influence of Fascism and, later, the Second World War.

Nonetheless, he states that his work is derived from images rather than ideas. And, certainly, the stories in Adam, One Afternoon are strikingly visual. Most are essentially fairy tales. Themes and ideas are recycled, giving the individual stories a sense of cohesion. For example, in the title story animals are collected and given as presents, in The Crow Comes Last animals are shot one by one, while in Animal Wood they appear unexpectedly but people intercede to prevent them being shot. The same subject matter, woven differently.

Thre is something vaguely unsettling in the way that in stories which are essentially fantastic or whimsical a sense of realism breaks through while, in the neo-realist work, a sense of the fantastic may still pervade. It gives a sense of ethereality to the work, neither realist nor fantastic, but occupying its own, unique ground. Accordingly, we often see action through the eyes of a child, or someone otherwise an outsider, not cognisant of the political nature of the bloody events that unfold. Always, an otherworldy sense seems to pertain.

The final story, The Argentine Ant, the only one of substantial length, is almost magic-realist in its depiction of ants overwhelming a family and their house. It is beautifully written in a plain style which neatly counterpoints the oddity of the story. And, like so many of the stories here, it ends with a glimpse of the infinite.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Rose Mae Lolley was a character in Joshilyn Jackson’s first novel, gods in Alabama. As sometimes happens to writers, a seemingly minor character suddenly takes on a life of his or her own and the author can’t escape them. It usually happens within the same novel – witness Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, who ended up its principal character although that role was meant to be played by her son Tom. In this case, Rose Mae’s true story only revealed itself to the author much later, hence the new novel, Backseat Saints, which attempts to explain why the feisty young girl who played an incidental role in the first novel was quite so odd.

Jackson is on record as being a fan of Flannery O’Connor – to the extent, she says, that she made Rose Mae Roman Catholic in tribute – and one can certainly see the influence. This is southern grotesque-lite, though. That’s not to say there isn’t extreme violence in Backseat Saints, because there’s plenty of it, and it’s particularly nasty, too, but what is missing is the spiritual intensity, the haunted and haunting search for redemption and grace which echoes through O’Connor’s humorous prose. I don’t intend that as a criticism of Jackson (or as praise for O’Connor), because I think Jackson is a highly talented writer, but if people approach this expecting O’Connorish insight, they will not get it.

Rose Mae is a confused and unhappy person. As an eight-year-old child, her mother fled her abusive husband, leaving Rose Mae behind. Rose Mae becomes the surrogate punchbag, before escaping herself as soon as she is old enough. As well as the physical damage, however, there are emotional scars, the result of which is that Rose May meanders down Route 66, seeking out one abusive partner after another. Something inside compels her.

She hits the jackpot with Thom Grandee, a Texan football jock whose initial charm conceals a furious and violent temper. They marry and Rose Mae becomes Ro Grandee: almost literally so – in her near psychotic state she becomes a new person, and the real Rose Mae is submerged beneath Ro, who is a chilling mixture of would-be perfect wife and out-of-control trouble-seeker. It is a dichotomy that is all too familiar in women who find themselves in such positions. They seem to need the edge, the danger, the erotic charge set off by these abusive relationships, but finally, always, an end is reached which goes far beyond any complicit agreement and they are overwhelmed by the violence. It is a vicious spiral from which it is desperately difficult to escape. Any outsider will be nonplussed by why women (and sometimes men) stay in such relationships, but evidence show that they do, time and time again. Accordingly, Ro lives a life of marital bliss punctuated by hideous violence, regularly ending up in hospital, where she is warned by the nurse that the next time could be the last. The reader comes to believe this could be true.

Although that sounds like a grim premise for a plot, Backseat Saints is a fast-paced, highly entertaining and often very funny read. It is painful, certainly, but gripping too. After a tarot reading by what appears to be a gypsy fortune teller, Ro is warned that she will have to either kill her husband or be killed herself. She tries to do so and fails. Her life begins to unravel. The trail of chaos leads her back to her home in Alabama, to her father, her real self, the truth of the violence that smoulders within her. She takes to the road, both in flight and in search. What she discovers changes everything.

Backseat Saints is a good book. I could do without every female character ending up a victim of abuse in some way – that is overegging it, I fear, making the plot appear contrived at points and, in a way, lessening the impact of the genuinely awful violence that does occur. What particularly appeals to me about the novel, however, is the way that, although it begins as a study of domestic violence, it gradually broadens impressively into a wider analysis of family relationships in general. The central relationship here is not between Ro and her husband. I won’t say more than that to save spoiling the plot, but it is a brave leap, and one which could easily have gone disastrously wrong. Jackson gets it right.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath divided opinion when it was first published. Some declared it a masterpiece, others dismissed it as crude propoganda. Charles Angoff, in his contemporaneous review, noted:

There should be rejoicing in that part of Hell where the souls of great American imaginative writers while away their time, for at long last a worthy successor to them has appeared in their former terrestrial abode. With his latest novel Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane, and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. [The Grapes of Wrath] has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable: universal compassion, a sensuousness so honestly and recklessly tender that even the Fathers of the Church would probably have called it spiritual; and a moral anger against the entire scheme of things that only the highest art possesses.

High praise indeed, it wasn’t all uncritical acclaim: the novel was banned in Kansas and in Kern County, California (location of the Weedpatch camp in which the Joads stayed in the novel). In St Louis not only was it banned but the librarian was ordered to burn copies that had already been purchased. H. Kelly Crockett, a student in Oklahoma at the time of the novel’s publication, recalled in an article twenty years later that a common criticism of the novel at the time was that it was propogandist and, once the situation that had called into being the events it portrayed had been overcome, it would be read merely as a historical curiosity. Crockett’s conclusion, after twenty years, was that this had proved not to be the case and the novel retained its literary power. Seventy-plus years on, is that still the case? The fortunes of any novel wax and wane, and such is the case for The Grapes of Wrath. A largely positive review by Edward Galligan of the 1989 fiftieth anniversary reprint still balked at “purple prose, melodramatic plotting, and sentimental thinking,”, and enough “hamminess” to make us “gag at the prospect of rereading it.” Today, then, while Steinbeck is still read, it is mostly Of Mice and Men, while The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps out of favour. I would suggest that, for all the novel’s faults, this is a pity.

Frank Eugene Cruz suggests that most criticism of the novel categorises it in one of four ways – as a story of migration, a recasting of Christian themes and motifs, a work of social protest or a powerful, sentimental epic. And the latter three representations are, in part, responsible for some of the ambivalence with which we tend to confront the book today. The Christian moralising and socialist rhetoric which some discern in it are too didactic: and it is true that, at times, Steinbeck batters us with his message where some subtlety would have been more effective. The unfairness, for example, of the way the farm owners used the surplus of men to drive down pay does not become any more unfair because we read of it three or four or five or six times: it was unfair the first time and the reader could have been trusted to intuit that. And the sentimentality that gives rise to Edward Galligan’s gagging at the prospect of re-reading it is certainly an issue. But, nonetheless, I would argue that The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel.

What makes it so, for me, is the interconnectedness of those different categories that people ascribe to it. It is all of the things that people have described it as, but it is all of them in combination. If it can be read as a Christian narrative, then it is a highly political Christian narrative, as Stephen Bullivant demonstrates when he points to the novel’s connection of being a “red” with Jesus Christ, in the form of Jim Casy. Similarly, Stephen Railton suggests that Steinbeck’s use of Christianity, in the form of Casy, is a way of insinuating a revolutionary vision of militant socialism. Railton appears to posit this as a criticism, but for me the way the novel gives religious ideas political resonances is one of its great strengths. In any case, politics and religion are backdrops in the novel – essential, unavoidable, but backdrops nonetheless – and the central message is neither purely political nor religious, but rather about the nature of humanity and the need for community. And that transcends everything.

While there is a strongly religious element to The Grapes of Wrath, it is not straightforward. Stephen Bullivant notes a letter from Steinbeck to his editor in which he states that he wants “all all all” the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be printed at the start of the novel. The repeated alls demonstrate that he is adamant on the point and Bullivant therefore makes a study of the complete song in order to understand why. He notes particularly the final verse:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make me free,
While God is marching on.

Bullivant is drawn to the third line, noting that, in religious terms, the concept of dying “to make men free” is novel. Martyrdom, in the Gospels, is a transcendent event rewarded by personal salvation; “making men free” suggests more of an immanent event. Such notions, of course, would have appalled social conservatives such as Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss, suggesting, for them, the hubris of mankind, but there is nothing hubristic about The Grapes of Wrath. Far from it, there is a deep note of pessimism sounding throughout it. It may be replete with Christ figures – Casy, Tom, even Rose of Sharon – but the freedom granted by Jesus’s death is still, in Steinbeck’s vision, a highly qualified one.

Tamara Rombold gives a persuasive account of inversions of the Bible story throughout The Grapes of Wrath, from the superb depiction of drought in the first chapter (an inversion, she argues, of the Creation story) to Exodus (unlike the Israelites who were spared the plagues, the Oklahoma drought blights everyone), to Moses in the bullrushes (Rose of Sharon’s baby cast dead into the water) to the final scene, after the apocalypse of the flood, with Rose of Sharon in the barn with the starving man, reminiscent of Isiaiah, and the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Rombold then draws on Jim Casy’s soujourn in the wilderness “like Jesus”, in which he realises the call of a new spirit, which he calls love. She makes persuasive allusions to Casy’s Christ-like behaviour in his arrest and death scenes. Curiously, though, she makes no mention of probably Casy’s most important speech, just prior to his death. In this, Casy himself makes an inversion of Jesus’s walk into the wilderness. The truth isn’t in the wilderness, says Casy, it is here, in the community, among the people. This is where he finds his soul. An this resonates clearly with Tom, of course, because it forms the basis of much of his later conversation with Ma Joad (and this exchange is related by Rombold), in which he reveals his intention to leave and follow Casy’s example, leading the community against the travails forced on them by the system. Thus, we have in Casy and Tom, two representation of Jesus. Casy, the pure-of-heart lover of humanity, a man who dies for his beliefs, is an earthly Jesus figure, preaching virtue and honesty and decency. Tom is at once his disciple and a symbol of the risen Christ, the one who is “with you always, even unto the end of the world” as it is written in Matthew. Or, as Tom says to Ma:

"Then it don't matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where- wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. If Casey knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why I'll be there."

Casy, then, can be seen as Jesus, while Tom is Christ. And the gospel they preach is a radical one. As Casy says to Tom:

"There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things people do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say . . . What is this thing called sperit? ... It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust sometimes - an' I want to make them happy - maybe it's all men an' all women we love; Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."

For all that, though, I don’t believe The Grapes of Wrath should be read as a Christian novel. It is, if anything, a humanist novel. There are clear Christian resonances, and central characters may be comparable with Christ-figures, but that is because the fundamental tenets of Christian religion such as fairness, sense of community and so on, borrowed as they are from pre-Christian Platonic thought, are equally relevant to modern humanist belief. And so you might consider the novel christian, in the sense of evoking an ideal of human decency, but not Christian, as in following the doctrinal beliefs of any Church of Christ. As Casy says, “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus?” Thus, the titular grapes of wrath are not those of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the spirit inside man which will rise against oppression and exploitation. Casy is no longer a Preacher of God but remains, throughout, a preacher of men for men.

Similarly, despite its sometimes overwhelming didacticism, in the end The Grapes of Wrath is not a political novel either. Politics is simply a by-product of Steinbeck’s true interest, which is human nature and human beings, the human community. In the 1930s, the prevailing difficulties which beset humanity were political, and that is therefore what he wrote about. It is Ma Joad who makes one of the novel’s most telling points: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” And earlier, she says: "I'm learnin' one thing good. Learnin' it all a time, ever' day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help – the only ones."

Warren Motley, writing in 1982, complains that much of the novel’s critisism until then had focused on Casy and Tom as the core of the film and that the central role of Ma Joad in explaining the family’s gradual realisation of the need for community and cooperation is underplayed. I would agree, and I suggest that Ma Joad is one of the great characters of American fiction. She develops throughout the novel and her gradual assumption of both actual and moral control over her family is beautifully drawn. She is superb. Motley draws on the writing of Robert Briffault to explain the sense of matriarchy as exemplified by Ma Joad’s growing sense of authority over her clan as defining a relationship of cooperation, as opposed to the typical patriarchal relationships based on power. And it is through this that one can sense a note of optimism in a largely pessimistic book. "Why, Tom,” she says, “us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on."

And what a wonderful rallying cry that is.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

Intruder in the Dust begins with a curious incident in which sixteen-year-old Charles “Chick” Mallison, a local boy and nephew of lawyer Gavin Stevens, is rescued after falling into an icy creek. His rescuer is Lucas Beauchamp, the black grandson of Carothers McCaslin, a white land planter and patriarch of the McCaslin family. He puts the boy into dry clothes and gives him his own supper, and thereafter the two find themselves embroiled in a peculiar game of one-upmanship. Realising the food was Lucas’s, and therefore nigger food, and recognising the “nigger smell” in the house, Chick does not wish to be beholden to a black man and tries to pay for the food with a handful of coins. Lucas refuses to accept and there is a stand-off before Chick lets the money fall from his hand to scatter on the floor. Angrily, Lucas orders him to pick it up and Chick and his black friend, Aleck Sander, do so in cowed submission. Chick now feels, however, that he has ended up the loser in the exchange and defeat consumes him to the extent that he saves his money for months to buy Lucas’s wife, Molly, a silk dress. He is now satisfied he is no longer in debt to a black man but is soon trumped when Lucas responds by sending him a gallon bucket of fresh homemade sorghum molasses.

It is only at the novel’s conclusion that the full import of this humorous interlude becomes clear. It is a metaphorical replay of the racial tensions attendant in the South, the refusal of the white man to afford the black man the dignity of equality. Chick, still a child, parrots the words he hears around him: “If [Lucas] would just be a nigger first, just for one second, one little infinitesimal second,” he concludes, it would be easier to deal with him. In this way, Chick is complicit in extending the mores and customs of the old South into a new generation. By the novel’s conclusion, however, when he has learned to think for himself and reach independent judgements, such notions have been banished from his mind. At that point, Lucas and Chick enjoy a light-hearted discussion in which their mutual trust and admiration is clear. The boy Chick, symbolic of a new age, has matured and thrown off the ways of the past.

If all that sounds horribly naive, then be assured that there is tremendous depth and subtlety to Intruder in the Dust, certainly more than Faulkner has sometimes been given credit for. Taken individually, some of the characters might come close to being stock, but the interplay between them most certainly isn’t.

Lucas Beauchamp is what would have been called at the time an uppity nigger, and like many an uppity nigger his fancy ideas (for which, read a refusal to consider himself in any way inferior to the white folks around him) has plunged him into trouble. Specifically, he is arrested for the murder of a white man – and not just any white man, but Vinson Gowrie, one of the notorious Gowrie clan, “brawlers and foxhunters and whiskeymakers” who are feared throughout the county. A lynching is the most likely – indeed, possibly the only – outcome. Lucas is spared that fate, however, by an improbably (in the sense of heroic, not poorly characterised) resolute defence by the “little driedup wizened stonedeaf” old constable, Skipworth, who handcuffs Lucas to the bedpost and watches over him till Sheriff Hampton can arrive.

Lucas calls for Gavin Stevens to act as his lawyer and insists he will pay. Stevens, although a liberal, immediately assumes Lucas is guilty and doesn’t even allow him to speak, telling him instead that he should plead guilty and, because of his age and good character, he may get sent to the penitentiary instead of being hanged. Given this lack of support from his lawyer, it is not surprising, then, that Lucas turns not to Stevens, but to his nephew Chick for help. He reveals to the boy that Vinson Gowrie was not shot with the 41 Colt which was in Lucas’s possession when he was apprehended. The only way of proving this, however, is to dig up the body. Prisoner and boy make a compact, and at this moment the novel’s moral journey is set in train. Chick is accompanied on his dangerous mission by his friend, Aleck Sander and Miss Habersham, an eccentric old woman who was a childhood friend of Molly Beauchamp, and who hears Chick’s story and instinctively believes it to be true. “Lucas knew it would take a child – or an old woman like me [to reveal the truth],” she says, “someone not concerned with probability, with evidence.” Together, they dig up the grave and find it is occupied, not by Vinson Gowrie, but by Jake Montgomery, his erstwhile business colleague who, unknown to Gowrie, was cheating on him. They re-bury the body and contact Sheriff Hampton to explain what they have discovered. The sheriff orders an exhumation and this time finds the grave empty.

The plot unfolds as a literary murder mystery, in which the murderer is finally revealed to be Vinson’s own brother, Crawford. Instantly, the moral fervour of the lynch mob dissipates into something like embarrassment. What we are left with is an analysis of the racial tensions of the South in the 1940s and a debate on how and how fast to ensure integration. Those are complex questions, and Faulkner’s novel is suitably complex in its analysis.

As Doreen Fowler has noted, Stevens’ softly softly approach to racial integration corresponds to some extent with Faulkner’s own public utterances and this has led some commentators to speculate that Stevens can be read as Faulkner’s spokesperson. Fowler takes issue with this and so do I. By the novel’s conclusion, Stevens’ position is clearly portrayed in a less positive light than Chick’s. He was convinced, without any evidence, remember, of Lucas’s guilt. He is a good man though not necessarily a good lawyer, and he has a tendency to declaim higher truths without ever quite acting in a way to suggest these truths are part of the blood and bone and sinew of his moral being. This is not a man, perhaps, who would ever die for a cause. It might also be noted that in an earlier appearance, in Faulkner’s 1942 story collection, Go Down, Moses, he is seen running from the grieving circle of Beauchamps mourning the death of Mollie Beauchamp’s grandson. He is a man of words, then, but not necessarily a man of action. It is true that in public Faulkner urged a similarly cautious approach to integration, but these calls operate at a political or oratorical level, as represented here by Stevens: it is at the community level, however, in the life and soul and blood and toil of the people of the southern communities, that the real work of integration must take place. And that will be achieved, as we learn through the maturation of Chick as the story unfolds, by the people themselves, at a momentum they can maintain.

Thus, it is Chick who presents the moral centre of the novel. In helping Lucas, he goes from being a peevish child acting out the received wisdom of his parents’ generation towards a state where he views events with complete objectivity and decries what he sees. Stevens may be eloquent, but Chick is passionate. The distinction is instinctive. Stevens has taken a intellectual approach to the question of race and reached a logical conclusion that existing ways are wrong. They must be changed, he concludes, and things will change, “but it won't be next Tuesday.” This element of equivocation is absent from Chick, whose understanding of the need for equality appears to grow from a moral sense within him. Chick perhaps senses that Stevens’ approach, a gradual process of legalised equality, will never overcome the ingrained prejudice of the people he has witnessed in the ugly lynch mob: the typical liberal approach of attempting to drive societal change through legislation is doomed to failure because it presupposes that everyone can be made to think in the same, liberal manner. Chick recognises from the twisted anger in the faces of the lynch mob that this is an impossible dream.

And this is what the novel is concerned with: exposing the ghosts of the South’s racist past, revealing how they still held a malign sway over the lives of the population and the moral judgements of the community. Lucas Beauchamp would have been lynched purely because he was a black man who found himself in a particular situation.

However, although it is wrong to assume that Stevens is the author’s proxy in the novel, then it is equally wrong to think that Chick is. It would be a serious misreading of the novel to depict Chick as some sort of hero of mankind leading us to a new dawn of community and brotherly love. His may be the vision of natural justice, but remember it is only carried out through the bloody-mindedness (not to mention downright illegality) of the actions of Sheriff Hope and lawyer Gavin Stevens. As Ticien Marie Sassoubre notes, together they are complicit in “exhuming a body, hiding Lucas at the sheriff’s house, [and] entrapping the real killer” in order to protect Lucas.

Therefore, it may be that the noble triumvirate of old woman and black and white boys may be the ones who could cut through the “facts” and see the truth, but they would have been powerless to stop the lynch mob.

What we see, then, is an alliance of Stevens, Sheriff Hampton, Chick, Aleck Sander and Miss Haversham combining to rescue Lucas Beauchamp. And this is the central point of the novel: it is only a combination of law and community, force and will, experience and willingness, that can overcome the racial tensions which are so entrenched in southern communities. There is no individual hero of Intruder in the Dust, there can be none: without any one of the central characters, Lucas would have died. Instead, they work together and Lucas Beauchamp goes free. And it is worth, at this point, comparing Intruder in the Dust with another classic of pre-war southern society, To Kill A Mockingbird. At first sight, Gavin Stevens may be no Atticus Finch. He may share the same high-blown rhetoric, but does he have Atticus’s moral integrity? Perhaps not, but remember this: Lucas Beauchamp is freed in Intruder in the Dust but, for all Atticus Finch’s integrity and brilliance as a lawyer, Tom Robinson dies.

So it is a combination of people and circumstances and beliefs which can effect change. Moreover, it is clear that the beliefs of a new generation do not mysteriously appear, fully-formed and immediately comprehensible, out of nowhere. As philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy notes, “While this life stretches from the cradle to the grace the life span of an inspiration reaches from the middle of one man’s life to the middle of the life in the next generation.” This is the true message of Intruder in the Dust. Stevens may not have had the moral strength to act out his beliefs, but near the end he makes an important observation to Chick: “Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your pic¬ture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.” There is a preachiness of tone here which is typical of Stevens, but it is a noble sentiment all the same and one which, one feels, the boy Chick is ready to assume and develop in a way that is beyond his uncle. Stevens may say it: Chick may do it. Humans develop across generations and no generation, in itself, can effect profound change.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Best simile ever?

The war twisted closely round and round in those valleys like a dog trying to bite its tail.

Italo Calvino. Fear on the Footpath.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Memory and its fallibility is at the core of Julian Barnes’s novella The Sense of and Ending. Nothing can ever be fixed – not public history, not private biography, not truth, not emotion. Nothing is known for certain. Known knowns, in Rumsfeldian derivation, are nothing of the kind.

Tony Webster, the first-person narrator of the story, is one of a triumvirate of self-satisfied, clearly bright boys in the 1960s whose cozy world is forced to expand to include a fourth, altogether stranger, definitely brighter, boy called Adrian Finn. Where they have read Russell or Wittgenstein, Adrian has read Camus and Nietzsche, where Tony thinks a poem is about a barn owl, Adrian concludes it is about Eros and Thanatos, sex and death. By virtue of his intelligence Adrian becomes the de facto leader of the group and the newly constituted quartet go through school engaging in pretentious intellectual debates in which things are “philosophically self-evident”. The absolute certainty that teenagedom bestows is, for the boys, all-encompassing. Even their History teacher is cowed, telling Adrian that when he retires in five years time, he will provide Adrian with a reference for the job, if he wants it.

The boys grow up, go to university (different ones, Adrian to Cambridge, Tony merely to Bristol) and inevitably the bonds of friendship weaken. Tony takes up with a humourless girl called Veronica who takes him home to her charmless family (father a drunk, brother arrogant, mother strange) and their relationship appears to be as devoid of love as it certainly is (to Tony’s chagrin) of sex. They split up. They have sex. They split up again. Adrian writes to Tony to say that he and Veronica have begun seeing one another and hoping that Tony doesn’t object. Furiously, but somewhat inconsistently for such an equivocal character, Tony does object. He writes to say so, finishes his studies (a 2:1, steady from this steadiest of Eddys) and goes to America for six months. When he returns, he discovers that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving behind an eloquent suicide note explaining that he had not asked for life and had made the philosophical decision to renounce the gift. Tony regards this as heroic.

At this point the novella moves into the present, with Tony a retired, divorced, balding plodder through life. What follows is a slow unfurling of the past. A plot McGuffin is thrown in – Veronica’s mother dies and leaves Tony £500 and Adrian’s diary. This immediately begs one howlingly obvious question that would appear to have only one possible answer, but the reader is advised not to spend time thinking about it because to do so ruins the twist in the ending, which I’m afraid I found utterly predictable.

Before we reach this point, however, we are given a tour of the more outlandish behaviour characteristics of the seriously dysfunctional. All one can say about Tony and Veronica is that they deserve one another: two human beings less able to master the art of communication it is difficult to imagine. Veronica sets up a meeting, listens to Tony expatiate and walks away without a word. She takes him to an obscure location and confronts him with what appears to be a care-in-the-community day outing and when he, not unreasonably, appears uncertain as to the point of this, she accuses him of understanding nothing. She is so taken with this accusation she hurls it at him at every subsequent opportunity.

Perhaps I’m unfair on Barnes. Perhaps it is unfortunate that I’ve read this meditation on age and understanding and forgiveness in such close proximity to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, an altogether weightier work which also ponders those same questions. But The Sense of an Ending has been nominated for The Man Booker Prize. Indeed, it is the bookies’ favourite. Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. Barnes should not win the Booker for The Sense of an Ending. It is a decent book, but it is in no way special. I don’t believe it represents the best in current fiction. It doesn't even represent the best of Julian Barnes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The setting of Marilynne Robinson's second novel is Iowa in 1956, specifically the small town of Gilead, a place that, even in the old-fashioned environs of the 1950s midwest, has slipped behind the times. "It's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now." John Ames is its Congregationalist preacher, 77 years old, the third generation of his family to fulfil the role. Ames has been diagnosed with angina pectoris and is convinced of, if not resigned to, his imminent death. The novel takes the form of an extended letter to his six-year-old son, a child who, if Ames’s medical prognosis is correct, is destined to grow up largely without his father. The letter, then, is Ames’s attempt to form a connection with his boy, a connection that will only be consummated in a future he cannot share, a connection through which he will describe the man he is to the man his boy will become. Fathers and sons, then, connectedness, the human family through generations, this is what Gilead is about.

The letter begins as a record of “begats”, the family history, the chronicle of generations of fathers and sons (women do not feature prominently in Gilead; for the distaff narrative one must turn to Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping). Thus, we are introduced to his larger-than-life grandfather, a one-eyed Civil War firebrand who ran with John Brown and was active (violently so) in the abolitionist cause on the dangerous Iowa-Kansas border. Ames’s own father grows up in the shadow of this man, his father, and reacts against him in the way children do, by taking an opposite, equally strident point of view and becomes an avowed pacifist. He abhors the idea of men of God entreating people to fight and kill and be killed, however valid the cause. When he discovers the old man’s pistol he buries it, digs it up and buries it again, then digs it up again and destroys it before throwing it in the river. Nothing is strong enough to wash away the taint that pistol represents on his moral vision, no gesture will suffice. And yet he takes his own son, John Ames, on a pilgrimage to discover the grave of the old man, a complex inter-relationship of generations and beliefs and loyalties. Or, as Ames says in his epistle to his own son, the fourth generation, “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” Elsewhere, he despairs, “We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations.” When, finally, they find the old man’s grave, overgrown and abandoned, Ames is not surprised to see that it looks “like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire."

So this is a novel about fathers and sons, but it is more than that and, accordingly, Ames’s letter to his son becomes more than just a litany of begats: in its pages, history and present, disappointment and hope, nature and faith, death and life begin to meld as Ames reaches out to the man he will never know. Facing mortality, he is much given to thoughts of what is to come, but he cannot take leave of the beautiful world he inhabits, is reluctant to leave behind his wife and son, is protective, jealous, proud of them. He does not want to leave. He does not want to be left. It is the most basic equation and the most basic human emotion there is, and it boils down to the simple but unfathomably complex concept of love. Ames, though he would probably be embarrassed to admit it, is a man in love.

And so he ponders questions of life and death, metaphysics, theology. This is a deeply spiritual book but its religion is a human thing or – if that may be a theological non-sequiteur – perhaps that is to say that while its religion is focused on the Creator it does not overlook the Created. Where, for example, Flannery O’Connor’s obsessive quest for grace tends to flatten human aspiration into something plain and painful, John Ames comes to see human life as beautiful, a thing to be treasured. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” he writes near the novel’s conclusion, “every one of them sufficient.” And of death, that unknowable passage which exercised such a hold over O’Connor, Ames writes:

Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.

It strikes me that O’Connor would recognise and empathise with those words, and yet they are materially different from the sentiments displayed in her own works. It is the notion of “humanly speaking” that does it. If sorrow is, indeed, the greater part of the substance of human life, for O’Connor that sorrow would define it; for Ames, and for Robinson, perhaps, it encloses it. There is a difference.

That difference is reflected in the central relationship of the novel, which at once is and is not a father and son relationship: it is between Ames and Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong friend, Robert Boughton. Jack was christened (by Ames himself) John Ames Boughton, in honour of the two men’s friendship, and recognising the fact (as it seemed then, Ames’s first wife and his daughter having already died) that Ames would not have offspring of his own. Although he could not articulate why, his great friend’s gesture of friendship in naming his child thus was as troubling as it was complimentary. And that unease did indeed portend their future relationship because Jack, a difficult boy, a troublemaker, a free spirit seemingly troubled in life, began to exert a baleful influence on Ames’s existence. He would steal items from the preacher’s house, only to return them later. He would break in to the house frequently. He would never apologise. A crisis was reached when the boy Jack fathered a child by a local girl and neglected his parental responsibilities: for Ames, who had lost his only child, such dereliction of paternal duty was sinful. Early in the novel we understand that Jack left home many years before and had subsequently been out of contact. He did not even attend his mother’s funeral. Suddenly he returns, and Ames is suspicious, protective of old man Boughton, whom he does not wish to see hurt, and wary of the young man’s potentially malign influence on his own wife and son. They endure a tortuous new relationship. They edge around one another, frequently upsetting each other without knowing why or how, failing to understand each other’s motivations and aspirations.

Thus, while Ames’s journal began ostensibly as a series of begats, a record for his son of his own history and that of his family, it is Jack who comes to dominate it. In this way, Robinson reflects on the nature of human community, human communication, human frailty, the capacity and absolute requirement for love. If there is to be sorrow, it is enfolded in love.

John Ames is a remarkable creation. Despite his protestations that he “appreciate[s] a joke as much as anybody” he is not possessed of a sense of humour. When he relates a childhood prank in which girls put boiled eggs under a neighbour’s setting hen he notes, “What the point was I never knew.” (For all that, though, his characteristically deadpan narration of an incident in which a horse falls into a tunnel dug by locals from the dry good store to the livery stables is one of the funniest things I’ve read all year: it is funny precisely because its narrator is not.)

Ames is, moreover, a man of great piety and a stoic defender of faith, a dry, equanimous fellow who tries to see the best in everything. None of this – humourlessness, devotedness, placidness – would ordinarily make for good fiction: where is the conflict, where is the tension? This even-handedness does, of course, reveal a flaw. In a perfect counterpoint to the violent approach of his one-eyed grandfather towards emancipation of slaves, Ames’s seems largely oblivious of the racism attendant in the burning down of Gilead’s only Negro church and the subsequent eradication of black people from the town. This man with a full complement of eyes, this man of sensitive disposition, a man of placid even-handedness, seems not to see what is happening or realise the sociological import of the church burning or recognise the nascent Civil Rights movement it prefigures. Every good man, Robinson suggests, is imperfect in his own way.

And this is the strength of John Ames as a fictional character: he is real, he is mortal, he is flawed. He wants and hopes. He is not wholly an innocent: “We humans do real harm,” he writes at one point. “History could make a stone weep.” But this will not make him bitter: through it all, he wants to appreciate life in its glory. Reflecting on his seventy-six years, he writes, “I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace." While relating his family’s past, he insists on looking forward. “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief,” he tells his son. “You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”

This positive approach is severely tested by the re-emergence of Jack. Ames’s life has been carefully moulded: he has spent his entire existence in Gilead; the fruits of that existence are in the attic, in the 2500 sermons he has written and presented over his career, each one (except one, a pacifist sermon during the war which, to his regret, he did not deliver) preserved as a record, or a monument, or an explanation. He has his new family, and the hope for the future, even if it is a future from which he will be excluded. But Jack, with his insistent probing on the existence of God and predestination and perdition, threatens to shatter the calm he has created. Gradually, however, a reconciliation is reached, and a beautiful one it is. In an emotional climax, Jack and Ames come together, achieve a degree of understanding. For the religious minded, one might say they each reach a state of grace. For the non-religious, it might be characterised as love. The two ideals may not be so far apart. As Ames says, "Love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters." In this sense, perhaps, the novel isn’t about grace, it is about forgivenness; the former is situated in the beyond, the latter in the present. In Robinson’s view, of course, the one will lead to the other, but its simple beauty strikes, too, a strongly secular note of human beauty. An absolutely stunning passage brings this out:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely.

The first sentence is a secular paean, at once beautiful and sad. It broadens into a Christian evocation of God as being beyond everything, but immediately reasserts the beauty of the earthly present. And then that final, glorious sentence is as powerful an evocation of humanity as I’ve ever read. Love and grace, so inextricably linked, form the absolute bedrock of this novel. There is a purity in Robinson’s vision. For me, a non-believer, it seems to reside in her notion that while, for a Christian, the transcendent beyond is the perfect state to which we all aspire, the notion of grace is nonetheless very much an earthly gift, and a gift of great beauty. For Flannery O’Connor, grace seems only attainable as a matter of transcendence and the present is therefore fit only to be discarded. This seems to miss much that is human, and that muchness, as Ames demonstrates, is love.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dresden, Tennessee by Carolyn Slaughter

Dresden, Tennessee by Carolyn Slaughter, is an ambitious psychological study of memory and guilt, both inherited and assumed, and what happens to private grief when public moments intrude. It’s certainly a brave novelist who would use the bombing of Dresden as their moral and historical backdrop after Kurt Vonnegut’s use of it for Slaughterhouse-5, although Dresden, Tennessee is entirely different in tone and approach from Kilgore’s masterpiece.

Kurt Altman is a man in crisis. He is a second-generation German immigrant whose mother was trapped in Dresden during its carpet-bombing by the British at the end of the Second World War. Kurt has suffered catastrophic memory loss and is prone to panic attacks. On a plane to Memphis he finds himself beside a woman who, in those fortuitous circumstances which only attend in fiction, is also a second-generation German immigrant and an expert in psychology. Even more fortuitously, she quickly develops an attraction to Kurt.

This sounds flippant, and in a way it’s meant to. Dresden, Tennessee is a good book, dealing with worthwhile subject matter, but the central details of its plot are ridiculously slight. It’s all too pat, too plotted, too contrived. Not only is Hannah German, she’s a German Jew, so able to both empathise with and analyse Kurt’s inherited guilt over his Nazi father. Not only is she a psychologist, she is a business psychologist, trained to spot fraudsters and psychopaths in business: and Kurt, we discover, was in business in his previous life, so she is doubly adept at analysing his troubles. On other words, she can understand him in every way. She is him turned inside out. If only life worked like this: if only, for every broken, frightened, damaged yin there was a dynamic, understanding, complementary yang just waiting to conjoin with it and lead it out of crisis and into salvation. If only every psychotic episode by every mentally ill person could not only be accepted, not only be understood, not only be helped, but actually be used in order to bring that person into the loving embrace of human companionship, then the world would be a beautiful place. But that isn’t the case. Mentally ill people are too frequently ignored, avoided, viewed with fear, disgust, incomprehension. In truth, Hannah would have run a mile from Kurt the moment they descended from the plane in Memphis. She certainly wouldn’t have ended up in his loving embrace within hours and, because of that, there would have been no novel. And, despite Dresden, Tennessee’s strengths, it cannot overcome that fundamental flaw.

Because this is fiction, so Herr Yin and Fraulein Yang travel through the outer reaches of Kurt’s psychosis in search of truth. What is the catastrophic event he is burying beneath this amnesiac episode? What is the linkage with the fate of his mother in Dresden? How is it that Kurt has come, in the words of one character, “to be carrying some of his mother’s history”? The novel is entirely readable, thoroughly enjoyable and, as it progresses, it develops a dreamlike connection between the past and the present which works most effectively. Indeed, when it is rooted in fable the novel is at its most engaging. It is in its presentation of reality that it misfires.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

In the first thirty or so pages of Steppenwolf the narrative is presented from three different viewpoints: those of the Steppenwolf himself, the nephew of the woman with whom he lodges and an anonymous psychoanalytical treatise outlining details of the Steppenwolf’s condition. This narrative fragmentation serves as an introduction to the novel’s primary preoccupations: the divided self, human consciousness and its travails, the possibility (or impossibility) of reaching an accommodation between the individual and society; and, finally, the desirability (or otherwise) of suicide as a means of closure.

The introduction, penned by the unnamed nephew, sets the scene by depicting Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf, as an oddity, an outsider who makes no attempt to assimilate himself into polite society. The narrator is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by Haller, but certainly he appears not to understand him. This brief narratorial intervention, not subsequently repeated, serves to establish an objective view of Haller as an outsider before we are taken into his thoughts. More than this, though, when we are first privileged into the thoughts of Haller himself, the preceding, alternative, view creates an ambiguity in the reader which essentially mirrors the confusion in Haller’s own head caused by his schizophrenic division of himself into Haller, man of reason, and the Steppenwolf, manifestation of the savagery within us all.

Thus, we have quickly established the novel’s central premise, the man of society wholly alienated from it and wrestling with the animalistic spirit within him. In the early scenes of the novel we follow Haller as he flows discontentedly through a world from which he feels apart. Then, inexplicably, he is drawn to a sign advertising the Magic Theatre, “not for everyone”, “for madmen only”. Haller is immediately intrigued. It is now that he is given a copy of the treatise which appears to describe him and his condition perfectly. Steppenwolves, it suggests, “have two souls, two beings within them. There is God and the devil in them; the mother’s blood and the father’s; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and man in Harry.” He is in need of loneliness and independence, it concludes. He seeks to renounce either the man in him or the wolf, one or the other.

The next night, against his better judgement, Haller attends dinner with an old friend, a professor, and disgraces himself through his conduct. It is his “leave-taking from the respectable, moral and learned world, and a complete triumph for the Steppenwolf.” This represents the nadir of Haller’s alienation because, unable to face the prospect of going back to his lodgings (and the prospect, therein, of suicide), he stops at an inn and is immediately engaged in conversation by an enigmatic woman. There is an instant connection between them, which comes as a considerable surprise to the reader, given the depths of isolation from polite society in which Haller has so far been portrayed. Clearly, this woman is going to have a significant impact on Haller, and on the progress of the novel.

So it turns out. She is called (or perhaps isn’t, it is Haller who suggest it to be her name) Hermine. On their second meeting she sets out her conditions: he will obey her without question; he will fall in love with her; he will kill her. The Steppenwolf, finally given a reason to exist, or at least to defer suicide, accepts these conditions. The novel’s progress is established. Haller, a man who detests modernity and its corrupt, baleful ways, who hates jazz and demi-mondaine fripperies, is drawn by this irresistible woman into the very society he abjures. He learns to dance. He even dances in public. He is introduced to a beautiful girl, Maria, with whom he begins an affair. With Hermine’s close friend, Pablo the saxophonist, he experiments with alcohol and drugs. Henry Haller begins to discover himself. The Steppenwolf, that divided element of existential despair within him, begins to dissipate.

The novel builds to a climax at a masked ball, for which Hermine has coached Haller in a number of dance steps. The novel now enters a wholly fantastic episode, in which Hermine appears in the guise of an old, male friend of Haller’s, then as a black Pierrette with white painted face. Finally, Haller is introduced to the Magic Theatre itself, in which the divisions of his soul are fully revealed. As he moves towards self-realisation, towards a dance with the immortals, his experiences in the Magic Theatre – essentially a series of hallucinations – reinforce the message established throughout the novel, that consciousness is not premised on a single self, that there is, in fact, no such thing as a single self, nor even a binary divided self but, rather, each of us is composed of hundreds, thousands of selves, each independent, each assuming ascendancy or regressing into silence as appropriate, each growing and developing over the course of our lives.

Steppenwolf, then, is a fictionalised account of the Jungian psychoanalytical concept of individuation, whereby an alienated individual may finally attain some accommodation with himself through confronting the archetypes which manipulate his conscious and, particularly, subconscious processes. In Haller’s attempts at self-knowledge there is, in fact, something optimistic, even transcendent, but it depends on how one approaches the text. This, I suspect, is why the novel’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed to such an extent over the years: the novel is focused strongly on the individual and his or her role in society; this role has changed a number of times since the First World War and still evolves constantly. Although Haller does, indeed, manage to reconcile the conflicting aspects of his personality, it is still not sufficient to wreak the necessary change in him. Something remains lacking, as it does for others of Hesse’s characters. Joseph Knecht, in The Glass Bead Game, ultimately fails to embrace existence outside the rarefied intellectual atmosphere of Castalia. Emil Sinclair, in Demian, does manage to free himself from the shackles of the bourgeoisie, but that novel’s ambivalent ending, in which Emile effectively melds with the self of his mentor, Demian, is not, at least for this individualist critic, wholly optimistic or satisfactory. And, in Steppenwolf, Harry Haller still cannot, quite, piece together the fragments of his psyche into something recognisable and worthwhile. Thus, any optimism which exists in Steppenwolf must be tempered by a strong degree – one which runs through most of Hesse’s work – of doubt.

Hesse’s professed aim in Steppenwolf, although he complained that this was neglected in critical analyses of the novel, was to offer a humanistic rebuttal of suicide as a means of escape and, instead, to reinforce the possibility of redemption. He insisted that "the story of the Steppenwolf, though it describes an illness and a crisis, does not describe one that leads to death and decline but rather the opposite – to recovery." Given that the novel is significantly autobiographical – for Harry Haller read Herman Hesse – one might certainly hope for such an optimistic outlook, but it is not difficult to see how the novel has been so differently interpreted over the years. Haller’s expedition through the Magic Theatre appears to resolve far from satisfactorily. In each of the rooms he enters he is set tests which he fails – spectacularly, fatally so in the final instance – and any self-revelation which ensues appears to be contingent at best. The game must begin again, he concludes, but while that may be feasible for the immortals who circle around Haller (and, throughout his life, around Hesse himself) this is not an option that time and fate and fatality offers us poor bloody infantry of humanity.

And so, at the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left in a curious limbo. Hesse has undoubtedly opened up the prospect of redemption for his troubled character, but we have no way of knowing whether Haller will ultimately be able to reach it. Which, perhaps, in the troubled times in which Hesse wrote the novel – Weimar Germany in the late 1920s – is as much as could be hoped. And how much things have changed in the intervening eighty-plus years would open an interesting debate.