I have put off reading this book for years. It’s not that it didn’t interest me. On the contrary, I’ve pulled it off the shelf many times. But I always put it back, knowing I would get to it someday. Well, after reading and loving Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and now that her third novel Home was a finalist for the National Book Award and now the National Book Critics Circle Award, the time has arrived. It helped, by the way, that Gilead (2004; Pulitzer) is also one of newly inaugurated President Obama’s favorites.
If you’re a grown man when you read this – it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then – I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.
Those are the words of Robinson’s exquisite narrator, John Ames, to his almost seven-year-old (nameless) son, his only living offspring (more than half a life ago he had a wife who died giving birth to his daughter who also died). Thus begins one of the most complex and well-crafted narrative structures I’ve ever seen, a structure where the various segments interact with one another. Born in 1880, he’s lived his whole life in Gilead, Iowa, which looks “like whatever hoe becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more.” Ames is now dying of old age – he’s nearly 77 years old. As you can see, he’s come to his family very late in life and, feeling blessed, regrets all the same that he will never live to see a child of his grow old. So he’s taking the time to write this journal as a sort of letter across the decades for his son when he’s grown.
Ames is a Congregationalist minister, as were his father and grandfather before him. As he writes for his son, Ames uses the journal to teach but also to reflect and sort out his own life, at times frustrated by his own inability to express what he wants:
I have tried to keep the Gospel before me as a standard for my life and my preaching. And yet there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman’s face.
Knowing he can’t have much longer, he begins the book preoccupied with death. But even while Ames expresses a subdued anxiety about his death, he wants to teach his son a few lessons that might be important to learn from a father were he able to live long enough to teach them. Of particular importance to Ames is teaching his son of the value of the individual. As he’s interacted with his flock through the decades, Ames has come to realize the vast depth in each being:
That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of live, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.
. . . .
When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescences in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.
While speaking to and of his young son, Ames finds it easy to express pure love for his son’s existence (“You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.”). He has no need to question his young son’s goodness. Though he tells his son he will love him absolutely, no matter what he does in his later life, Ames fully expects his son to turn out to be an upstanding individual.
However, as the book progresses we learn of Ames’s best friend, Old Boughton, a Presbyterian minister. They grew up together and now both are suffering the last years of their lives (“Jesus never had to be old,” says Boughton). Boughton’s family has grown old around him. His wife is dead, and his children have all grown up and have all moved away except for Glory, who has come home to watch after her dying father.
Every once in a while in the letter/journal, Ames brings up one of his and Boughton’s supreme disappointments: John Ames “Jack” Boughton, Boughton’s son and Ames’s godson. Jack was an awful child who, for all we know, grew into an awful adult. He’s a drunk, and he hasn’t been around for years. But about halfway through the narrative Jack returns home (incidentally, this is also the topic of Robinson’s new book Home).
Smoothly, Ames’s journal shifts from being a predominantly an epistle to his son to his own reflections on this failed “son.” At first Ames’s doesn’t want to tell too much because, after all, his young son does not need to know everything. However, the letter becomes for Ames a way of understanding his own self even as he attempts to convey that self to his child. Ames’s detests Jack. He can’t stand the fact that though he’s been such a disappointment, Jack remains Boughton’s favorite child, a son who brings so much pain but whom Boughton forgives again and again. Ames struggles to find a way out of his resentment, out of his jealousy, out of his basic hatred. Worse, Ames’s wife and son have taken to Jack and Ames doesn’t know how to warn them off.
The truth is, as I stood there in the pulpit, looking down on the three of you, you looked to me like a handsome young family, and my evil old heart rose within me, the old covetise I have mentioned elsewhere came over me, and I felt the way I used to feel when the beauty of other lives was a misery and and offense to me. And I felt as if I were looking back from the grave.
This novel is fantastically complex in the way Robinson layers one father/son relationship on top of another, all to explore the vast landscape of those relationships: the love, the disappointment from father and from son, the need to be close and the need to be separated. Further, it’s brilliant how well Robinson juxtaposes Ames’s preaching about how to have godly love by recognizing merely the miracle of someone’s existence with Ames’s own hatred of this one individual who still calls him Papa.
After reading Housekeeping and now Gilead, I place Robinson in the forefront of American authors. Her collection of novels may be sparse, but in them lies more material than in a lifetime of work from many of the most prolific authors. Her writing skill is matched by her insights into the human condition, both from a spiritual perspective and from a purely humanistic perspective. This is not a polemic. Robinson is not preaching here through the voice of her preacher. While the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son is an obvious subtext, belief in divinity of any sort is not necessary to enjoy what this book has to offer. It’s a brilliant character study, and John Ames and Jack Boughton are incredibly well drawn. Furthermore, the aesthetics of Robinson’s limpid prose - it’s a rare treat to have form and substance and the weight of a cultural past all packed together in diction.
I’ll leave you with one more thought from Ames (I couldn’t resist):
Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
After binging on Philip Roth, reading seven of his books over a period of a few months, I haven’t read anything by him since October. Partly that’s because I’m reading his Zuckerman books in order and the next book on my list was I Married a Communist (1998); I’ve been much more excited to read The Human Stain. It’s also a bit discouraging after reading so many Roth books where the cover proclaims the awards it garnered that this one simply says, “Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Pastoral.” I guess I had low expectations of this book and viewed it as something I needed to get through (a self-imposed barrier, I know) in order to move on to better Roth pastures.
But why should I have approached this book with trepidation. After all, I Married a Communist capped off a great decade for Roth. In the 1990s, Roth won the National Book Critics Circle Award (nonfiction) for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral (1997). And I Married a Communist is the middle part of Roth’s highly acclaimed America Trilogy and the greater Zuckerman series. Yet still I had low expectations of this book and put my Roth project on hold until I had the gumption to just get it done.
Then the other night my son was awake and sick. I picked up this book and began reading while I rocked him. So much for that night of sleep. Roth’s prose begins as seductively as usual.
The book opens differently than American Pastoral; where American Pastoral opened with an excellent framing device for the overtly solipsistic narrative to come, I Married a Communist has the rather mundane framing device of memory. The narrative structure here is, in a way, a sort of late-night-on-the-back-porch interview Nathan Zuckerman has with his former high school teacher Murry Ringold. The discussion takes place in the late 1990s but looks back nearly fifty years before to America during the era of McCarthyism. The topic of their six-evening-long discussion is Murray’s now-dead brother Ira, a devout Communist in a time when America’s zealous hatred of Communism was so great that even acquaintances of alleged communists were tainted. Rather than delve into Ira’s story right away, the book begins with Murray’s own run-in with the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), a committee setup to investigate potential threats to American security – in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the perceived threat was Communism. Paranoid, HUAC, with the help of a sinister family foe, investigates and interrogates Murry Ringold, mainly because he is Ira’s brother. As a result of his ultimate noncompliance, Murray loses his teaching job. Turns out that Nathan’s own life was affected by Ira’s political beliefs, though he remained ignorant of this until this back-porch discussion nearly fifty years later. Murray says that when Nathan applied for the Fulbright Scholarship he was denied only because of his connections to Ira Ringold, connections that we readers do not know much about yet. (I’d actually like to thank HUAC for whatever they did to deny Nathan the scholarship because instead of doing whatever he would have done with his Fulbright, Nathan goes to the University of Chicago - The Ghost Writer is only a few steps away.)
One of the compelling aspects of this early part of the novel is how well Roth evokes the nuances of an age that we now think of only in the vague yet absolute term McCarthyism. Today we look back on this time period as excessive government feeding on mass paranoia. I’m not saying we’re wrong to call it this, but Roth manages to make the time period become a bit more difficult to map in black and white. And again, Roth is not saying McCarthyism was good – far from it – but he allows his characters to be more than mere symbols of an age. Well, all of his characters except for the main one – Ira. Though I’m sure this was not Roth’s intent, things went down hill for me when I finally met Ira through Murray and Nathan’s memories and long-winded talk. The book became heavy-handed – so much so that Ira was flattened quickly.
For me, after reading about a third of Roth’s books, Ira Ringold is Roth’s weakest character yet. Unlike the Swede in American Pastoral, Ira never feels like he has his own voice. We learn of him from two sources fifty years in the future. In Ira’s long-winded (thirty, forty, and fifty page segments) recounts of the past, his fraternal interests are to set up Ira as a martyr. Sure he says Ira is to blame for some things, but he always passes off Ira’s actions as just part of this innocent man’s nature. Had things been different, Ira could have succeeded in life. In these segments, Ira feels like someone capable only of reaction.
I’d never known anyone so immersed in his moment or so defined by it. Or tyrannized by it, so much its avenger and its victim and its tool. To imagine Ira outside of his moment was impossible.
While this idea is compelling, and this is not the only book where Roth looks at how history can steamroll over individuals, it didn’t work here. Ira never fully comes alive in Murray’s narration.
Nathan as narrator is only a fraction more successful. While the young Nathan is still doting on Ira’s ideological stamina, we get a few more glimpses of Ira in action – getting kicked out of a house at gunpoint while accompanied by the young Nathan, ranting about America to people interested only in taxidermy (again while accompanied by the young Nathan) – but even these are a bit over the top when they occur. It seems that Ira is not a character so much as a symbol, someone whom Roth can use to represent disillusionment, wrath, and injustice. Indeed, to a limited degree Ira even becomes one of Roth’s alter egos while at the same time appearing to be one of Roth’s own attempts at revenge: after Ira’s marriage falls apart with the actress Eve Frame, Eve writes an unflattering, best-selling book (I Married a Communist); after Roth’s marriage to actress Claire Bloom ended in 1994, Claire published an unflattering depiction of Roth (Leaving a Doll’s House) in 1996 – in this book, Eve is not depicted in a particularly flattering light.
Though at the beginning of the book I was fascinated by the evocation of the 1950s and McCarthyism, ultimately I cared less for Ira and Communism than for the tangentially developed idea of Nathan’s own pursuit of a father figure. Of the 325 pages, the best ones, and the ones I will remember, are the ones where Nathan’s character develops. I was particularly pleased every time Nathan’s father entered in the narrative.
The moment when you first recognize that your father is vulnerable to others is bad enough, but when you understand that he’s vulnerable to you, still needs your more than you any longer think you need him, when you realize that you might actually be able to frighten him, even to quash him if you wanted to – well, the idea is at such cross-purposes with routine filial inclinations that it does not even begin to make sense.
We come to find out in this book one of the first events that begins to strain Nathan’s relationship with his father; it’s not just because Nathan writes an offensive story while at Chicago.
I was also enthralled when Nathan’s character developed from the idealistic, politically active youth (who saw that in “Zuckerman Bound”?) to the more familiar, apathetic Nathan I’ve come to love. Another surrogate father who enters Nathan’s live during the 1950s is Leo Glucksman, one of Nathan’s humanities teachers at Chicago. Some of Roth’s quintessential aesthetic ideas is expressed during these pages, and we see why Nathan ends up a recluse in his later life.
“Art as a weapon?” he said to me, the word “weapon” rich with contempt and itself a weapon. “Art as taking the right to stand on everything? Art as the advocate of good things? Who taught you all this? Who taught you art is slogans? Who taught you art is in the service of ‘the people‘? Art is in the service of art – otherwise there is no art worthy of anyone’s attention. What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman? To disarm the enemies of price control? The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature. You want to rebel against society? I’ll tell you how to do it – write well. You want to embrace a lost cause? Then don’t fight in behalf of the laboring class. They’re going to make out fine. They’re going to fill up on Plymouths to their heart’s content. The workingman will conquer us all – out of his mindlessness will flow the slop that is this philistine country’s cultural destiny. We’ll soon have something in this country far worse than the government of the peasants and the workers – we will have the culture of the peasant and the workers. You want a lost cause to fight for? Then fight for the word. . . .”
So there are some great parts that didn’t serve to strengthen the overall story. I am glad I read it because I am deeply interested in Roth’s depictions of Nathan Zuckerman. However, I’m not sure it’s for anyone interested in seeing Roth at his best. The last few pages of the book, however, are beautiful, and maybe just for them the book is worth it.
The finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction have been announced. Click on the link on the left-hand side and help create a conversation about the finalists.
I know: I’m way behind here. Consistently lauded as one of the two or three greatest novel of all time, frequently the precedent to whatever book I’m reading (can one write about adultery without some root in Madame Bovary?), but I thought I knew everything about it because it’s one of those stories one cannot help but have touched upon somewhere. Why read it, then? Well, it’s a bit awkward in conversation when I admit that I’ve never read it. And then my wife read it a few years ago and has been coaxing me to open it up. And, honestly, after reading another critical essay about a contemporary book that has its roots in Madame Bovary (1857; tr. from the French by Margaret Mauldon, 2008), I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
To begin with, I should say that another reason I avoided reading Madame Bovary is because I hate reading books in translation unless I’m sure I have an excellent translation. The edition my wife read had several awkward sentences – and even used the word “freaking,” as in “I’m freaking hungry” - so it was hard to believe that it was faithful to the flow and passion of Flaubert’s language. I feel it’s such a disservice to the author (and myself) to read a poor translation of her book: how many people have been put off of world masterpieces because they read some publisher’s cheap edition with the cheap or archaic translation? At that point it’s all about getting the plot line across, even if the sentences are syntactically convoluted. Furthermore, I think that Nabokov’s translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is bad because he believed in translating the Russian into its strict literal equivalent in English, sacrificing the poetic melody of the original (incidentally, when Nabokov’s friend Edmund Wilson reviewed Nabokov’s translation in the New York Review of Books, it caused their falling-out). There is value in Nabokov’s style of translation, obviously, but I find that value comes mostly when one wants to delve into scholarship, not into reading for reading’s sake. For me, at that point, it’s necessary to find a skilled translator who succeeds in getting the meaning, form, and poetry across. I think we’ve got one great translation of Madame Bovary here. Margaret Mauldon has been translating French classics since 1987. Her translation of Madame Bovary appeared in 2004, and it’s beautifully rendered. I can’t think of a single sentence where I thought, boy, is she trying to write English? And I was looking.
Now, enough about the translation. While reading the book, I discovered another reason to read Madame Bovary: it is more than just a good story. More than most authors, Flaubert manages to make his form perfectly complement his substance. In other words, on a sentence level, each word and comma serves to not only express a thought but also a certain pacing and emotional journey, so the reader feels very involved. It is to Flaubert that is most applied the phrase he made famous: le mot juste, meaning the author searches for not just the word with the correct meaning but also for the word with the correct sound and shape. This strategy is also carried out on a paragraph, chapter, and on the book as a whole. We go up and down with Emma; when she is bored, the sentences are longer and contain more tedious detail. When she is excited, the sentences push into one another, barely ending before the next one begins, building crescendo by the syntax. It’s beautiful. Proust and Joyce acknowledge a debt to Flaubert.
The story begins not by introducing Emma, the soon-to-be Madame Bovary, but her soon-to-be husband, the bumbling Charles Bovary, or, as I now prefer to call him charbovari. I did not know it before reading, but before Charles marries Emma he marries an older widow “with more pimples on her face than a tree has buds in springtime” but who did not lack suitors. When as a young physician, newly married, Charles meets Emma, he is instantly charmed by her. Before too long Charles’ miserable wife dies, and Charles can marry Emma. (For some reason, though he lusts after Emma while already married to the widow, readers tend to forget Charles’ own tendencies to be unfaithful when Emma makes him a cuckold.)
Charles is happy immediately upon marrying Emma. Here is a passage about Charles’ early days of marriage with Emma (the passage was just suggestive enough – look at the last phrase – to be one of the pieces of evidence against Flaubert in the obscenity trial that elevated this book to a must-read):
And then, on the endless dusty ribbon of the highway or in the sunken lands under bowering trees, on paths where the grain stood knee-high, with the sun on his shoulders and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the night’s bliss, his spirit at peace, and his flesh content, he would ride along ruminating his happiness, like someone who, after dinner, goes on savouring the taste of the truffles he has eaten.
It seems that when Charles consumates his marriage he feels he has already achieved all there is in life, so he stops trying too hard. Not that he had a lot going for him anyway. Here’s how Flaubert introduces the couple after their wedding night:
The next morning, by contrast, he seemed a different man. He was the one you would think had been a virgin, whereas the bride gave absolutely no sign that meant anything to anybody.
Charles quickly resembles the awkward school boy we met in chapter one, “walking half bent over her with his arm round her waist and his head crushing the front of her bodice.” Emma, who thought that marriage would be all excitement, rapture, and everything she’d imagined after reading her books, becomes despondent and depressed. After coming to the conclusion that since she was unhappy that she must not have ever loved Charles, she despises him.
So it was upon him that she focused the multifaceted hatred born of her unhappiness, and every attempt she made to conquer this feeling only served to strengthen it; for the futility of her efforts gave her another reason to despair and intensified her estrangement from Charles. Even her own meekness goaded her to rebel. The mediocrity of her home provoked her to sumptuous fantasies, the caresses of her husband to adulterous desires. She would have liked Charles to beat her, so that she could more justifiably detest him, and seek her revenge. She was sometimes astonished at the appalling possibilities that came into her head; and yet she must go on smiling, go on hearing herself repeat that she was happy, act as if she were, and let everyone belief it!
Emma is ripe for for some dashing Frenchman to take her away – and there are many willing candidates. Flaubert has just begun to dissect this marriage and the concept of love. My preconception of this novel was that Flaubert, not a particularly faithful man himself, had some qualms about the notion of “love.” Indeed, when many of his characters express love or longing for each other, Flaubert mocks them; what they say is contrived, pure cliché. Here is a wonderful scene where Rodolphe, who’s had his eye on Emma for a while, begins to pursue her at the county agricultural fair. This scene also captures the way Flaubert comments upon his characters indirectly, allowing external elements to do the description and the criticism, as Rodolphe’s declarations of love are separated by an awards ceremony at the fair:
And he seized her by her hand; she did not withdraw it.
“Prize for all-round excellence in farming!” proclaimed the chairman.
“The other day for example, when I came to your house . . .”
“To Monsieur Bizet, of Quincammpoix:”
“Did I know then that I’d come here with you?”
“Time and again I’ve intended to leave, yet I’ve followed you, I’ve remained by your side.”
“Just as I’d remain at your side tonight, tomorrow, day after day, my whole life!”
“To Monsieur Caron of Argueil, a gold medal!”
“For never before have I felt so utterly enchanted by anyone . . .”
“To Monsieur Bain, of Givry-Saint-Martin!”
“So that I’ll cherish the memory of you forever.”
Nothing Rodolphe says here is original. Manure is indeed le mot juste. And Rodolphe himself knows it’s manure; he doesn’t truly love Emma at all. Ironically, later on Flaubert revisits the idea that the language of love – and perhaps love itself – is somewhat vacuous. Here Emma has proclaiming her undying love to the bored Rodolphe, but . . .
Because wanton or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he only half believed in the sincerity of those he was hearing now; to a large extent they should be disregarded, he believed, because such exaggerated language must surely mask commonplace feelings: as if the soul in its fullness did not sometimes overflow into the most barren metaphors, since no once can ever tell the precise measure of his own needs, of his own ideas, of his own pain, and human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity.
The beautiful way Flaubert describes the way Emma is truly feeling, though inadequately expressing, shows how the book roams around the nuances and subtleties of love (and many other things), at one time critical, at another time with deep esteem. The characters of Emma and Charles are similarly difficult to measure. One desires to blame someone for the tragic course this book takes, but at once all and none are blameworthy. Not only did I find this book worth reading once; it could very well reach the rarified heights of being one of my perrenial reads.
This post will be a bit different only because I was away tonight and unable to polish off a review. However, I was away on official book enjoyment business, so I think a brief post about my delayed review is appropriate.
Those of you who read my blog during this year’s Booker Prize probably already know that my favorite book on the longlist was Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a nuanced look at post-9/11 New York City in which O’Neill recasts the American Dream. I’m still pushing for O’Neill to win a major literary award for this book. Maybe this weekend we’ll see his name on the NBCC shortlist. Maybe he’ll even be a finalist if not the winner of the Pulitzer in April.
Anyway, tonight Joseph O’Neill came to the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca to meet on a panel with Senior Editor of the New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus, and reviewers Liesl Schillinger and Dwight Garner (who loved Netherland). The official discussion was supposed to be about the New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2008, but mostly O’Neill was asked about his book and the reviewers were asked about the pracitice of reviewing.
And I got to speak for a brief minute with Joseph O’Neill. It was, after all, his book I took with me to the hospital when my second son was born – whom we named Holland, but not after this book, its narrator, or O’Neill’s adolescence. So here’s my copy of Netherland now.
My review will be up tomorrow.
Over the summer I read Imre Kertész’s Auschwitz trilogy (tetralogy if you don’t rely on English translations): Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation. However, the first Kertész book I bought was The Pathseeker (A nyomkeresö, 1977 ; tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, 2008). For some reason, though, I didn’t pick it up until I was reminded of it by John Self’s list of favorite reads of 2008.
Each thing I’ve read by Kertész has been stylistically different, and fairly brilliant. Fatelessness reproduced Auschwitz from an almost nonchalant point of view which led to incredible insights into Georgie. Kaddish for an Unborn Child was a steady declamation of “No!” to the many questions – including one where his wife asked if he’d like to have a child – asked of this Auschwitz survivor, a steady almost end-stop-less rant. Liquidation goes back and forth in time as B., who was a miracle child born in Auschwitz, commits suicide and happens to write all of the conversations his friends would have after his death. Sure, the theme is similar, and the philosophy introduced in one leads to another, but stylistically it would be difficult to pin them all on one writer.
And now I read this little gem, a masterwork in the poignancy of the unsaid.
He leaned forward, very close to the guest, his eyes burning with a strange light, his voice switching to a whisper. “The possibility, you catch my drift? Nothing else, the mere possibility. And that what happens just once, to just one person, has now transcended the frontiers of the possible, is now a law of reality . . .” He broke off, staring ahead, almost crushed, before again lifting his still slightly troubled eyes to the guest. “I don’t know if you understand what I’m getting at . . .”
And truly, it takes a while to figure out what the main character is getting at. We know he is a commissioner, but we don’t know what he is commissioned to do. He is interrogating someone at the beginning of the novel, someone who feels guilty but who is innocent, but we don’t know what for. He is searching for some location, some place hidden in the landscape, but we don’t know what that location is – or why he is searching for it. The air of mystery extends, apparently, to the commissioner’s own wife:
His wife did not respond. What and how much did she suspect, the husband wondered.
As the commissioner gets closer to his goal, the more uncertain even he is about what he is doing and why. He seems to recognize furtive details he can’t quite get his hands on. As much a journey through the landscape of an out-of-the-way train stop, we get a journey into the commissioner’s psyche as he discloses the nature of his assignment. If this sounds like it should be a work by Kafka, that’s completely understandable. In fact, if we look at Kertész’s ability with style, I’d say in this work he reflects Kafka very well. However, and this is something that amazed me – unlike Kafka’s absurdity, this one is “real.” Not that Kafka’s works aren’t real in their essence, but here is no heightened reality exaggerated for effect. As bizzare as it might sound, as ellusive as the author is being, the exercise in silence and inference creates a very realistic piece.
I have done my best not to disclose what is really going on here, who the commissioner is, and what he is doing. Indeed, this is a work best approached with no knowledge of its contents. Here is passage, however, that discloses little but still exemplifies the way Kertész drops little clues while setting up a haunting atmosphere:
These words suddenly confronted him, then they disappeared again in such a way that he could not tell off the top of his head whether he had read them or heard them. He had read them, of course, but right then it seemed as though he were hearing them as well. He turned to his wife, but she seemed to have noticed nothing; she was sitting calmly in her place amid the doomsday that was pulsing all around her.
And, finally, I find this passage articulates my feelings for The Pathseeker (only I think I’d be a bit more praising).
“Odd,” she said quietly.
“Certainly,” the commissioner smiled. “Obviously odd for some. But it contains a truth that is well worth consideration; you just have to decipher it,” he added.
Over the Christmas holidays I was extremely fortunate to win one of Dovegrey Reader’s giveaways from the dovesleigh (and from comment spot No. 1, I should add – what are the odds?). The result was a personalized copy of Imran Ahmad’s memoir Unimagined (2007, UK; 2008, US). It arrived at my postbox on Christmas Eve, and once I started it I was kept up at night reading, something I really should be avoiding as much as possible these days when nighttime hours are still being stolen by a five-month old son.
Free copy courtesy of Imran Ahmad and Dovegreyreader.
The subtitle to Ahmad’s memoir is “A Muslim Boy Meets the West.” As is the case with many memoirs, it begins before the beginning by describing his ancestry on both his father’s and mother’s side. However, unlike most memoirists, Ahmad quickly lets his reader know that his memoir won’t be one of longwinded reflection:
My mother’s family and my father’s family were from the same village in India but, in the chaos and insanity of Partition, they headed in different directions. I could describe those events and years of separation in heartrending, excruciating six-hundred-page detail, but this is not that kind of book. (This story will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way.) Suffice it to say that, eventually, both families ended up in Karachi, the capital of West Pakistan.
And Ahmad makes good on his promise. The pre-Imran years are not touched upon again and we move at a steady pace through the first twenty-five years of his life. We begin in Pakistan, but by the time he was two, Ahmad’s family moved to England. There, early in his life, the innocent young boy experiences prejudice and humiliation, but at this point he is too young to understand it well. It’s enough that some injustice is done. It is also here that we get a sense of the humorous aspect of the book:
This wasn’t always due to lack of money. Accommodation was hard to come by for Pakistanis. Although many people in London were renting out rooms, some had signs which read ‘No Irish or Coloureds’. The more liberal-minded ones had signs which read ‘No Coloureds’.
It is interesting to note that the memoir is entirely in the present tense (other than the brief introduction quoted above), allowing Ahmad to mimic both the voice and the absolute certainty or confusion of a young man (“I know where babies come from. I understand the principles of reproduction; I have it figured out. Being ‘married’ induces a psychological change in the woman. Since the mind and body are closely linked, the mind triggers off a process in the woman’s body which causes the development and birth of a baby. I’m not sure where the baby comes out, but it happens at the hospital.”). This also allows Ahmad to express his own prejudices in absolute terms without the cumberson apologies of an interjecting author (“We are able to converse, although I look down on him because of his Northern accent.”). As the story progresses and Ahmad grows up, the certainty begins to slip away as he grapples with his identity, his religion, his relationships with others. As a reader, I felt like I was witnessing my own growth.
And that’s one of the best things about this book. The reader - any reader – can relate to Ahmad’s childhood, adolescence, and first steps into adulthood. With a unique voice, Ahmad speaks of universal feelings. All the better then, that one of the objectives of the book is to get people from different sides of the world to relate to one another. Here a Muslim boy wrestles with the idea of Christianity while reading James Bond. He responds in confusion to injustice on each side of the world and succeeds in putting a human face on each side of the world at the same time.
I’m pleased that Imran Ahmad has agreed to answer a few questions for me to post with this review. On to that, then; he’ll be able to tell more about this excellent book in his own words:
Q: You mentioned to me that you wrote this book with an American audience in mind, though the book describes in detail your experiences growing up in Great Britain: your interacting with British schools, British culture, and - though universal - the prejudice you experienced in Britain. We come to find out in your book that you eventually spend several years working in America. Why did you choose to write to Americans about the portion of your life spent in Britain and not the portion spent in America? (I ask this question fully aware of how well it reinforces Horace Engdahl’s comments about the insularity of American readers.)
There is a story behind this. I originally wrote a book which covered the 42 years of my life, including those living in the United States (and America remained an important part of my life thereafter). I couldn’t get any agent or publisher to consider this manuscript, so eventually I self-published it, as The Path Unimagined. This book had great feedback in some quarters – but it was completely ignored by the media. But I had a lucky break (one of many). The Head Buyer of Waterstone’s – Britain’s biggest bookstore chain – said he couldn’t stock a book which was so obviously self-published, but it had wonderful content and deserved a ‘proper publisher’. He sent it to a literary agent, who took me on as a client, and I shut down the self-published book.
The agent loved the first 25 years of the book, but said that the rest needed more work and material to make it as funny and compelling. So, I ended up with a three book project.
Unimagined is the first book, and covers school, university and my first year of work. It has an interesting structure (which continues in the other books). In England – and at the University of Stirling in Scotland, which I attended – the academic year begins in early September, which coincides with my birthday (September 13). So each chapter of the book corresponds to one year of my life, beginning with my birthday and the new class, and ending with the summer vacation.
More Unimagined (2009, I hope) continues with my career and all the years living in America. This book ends on the day of 9/11, which fits perfectly with the chapter structure. The final book of the trilogy is (again) called The Path Unimagined, (planned for 2010) and continues from immediately after 9/11.
Throughout the books, America is a theme – because it’s been such an important part of my life (I guess you may take America for granted if you actually are an American). It features less in Unimagined, because I’m not actually living there (although I do visit Disney World!), but my growing perception of America as I grow up is very important. There are so many exciting things about America, and so many contradictions. I begin to have a glimmering of understanding that America isn’t clear and simple, that the world isn’t black and white.
Unimagined is written for an American audience – because I know where the story is going – but of course it deals with growing up in England, visiting Pakistan, and attending university in Scotland. This growing up story, I have been told by many people, is universally resonant – regardless of the background, religion, ethnicity, and even gender, of the reader.
The original self-published book was written in American English, but I had to undo this for Unimagined, as my publisher is British. I wrote the UK version carefully, so that it would still make sense to ‘my American readers’ (whom I even refer to at the very beginning). I also discovered that the American readership most likely to read Unimagined would actually prefer the authentic British tone. (Once you understand that ‘pavement’ means ‘sidewalk’, you’re all set. But just in case, I have put a short glossary of terms on my US page.)
So the Unimagined trilogy is written by me with America in mind – a country for who’s people (but not necessarily its Administration and television media) I have the greatest affection and respect. It is easy to respect a country which enshrines every individual’s right to pursue their personal happiness in its Constitution. I am not aware of any other country which does this, certainly not any so-called Islamic country – where there is no concept of personal happiness, only of cultural and tribal constraints, and honor-bound duties (especially for women).
When I first approached American publishers, they all turned down Unimagined, because it had ‘no angle’ – ie I did not become a terrorist, so why would anyone be interested? So my British publisher has been exporting copies to the US. The only issue with having a British publisher is that they are struggling to meet demand in the US, so I am again actively looking for an American publisher – in light of the acclaim that Unimagined has received – to take on this project in the US and Canada. If I get an American publisher, I‘m going to do a US book tour by road – what a dream-come-true that would be!
Q: You write this book in the present tense, allowing your younger self to express his feelings in absolute terms and without the interference of blatant authorial hindsight. At the same time, I imagine this choice of perspective can be limiting. Why did you choose to portray these years in this manner?
I very much wanted the reader to experience my journey – my thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, fears, prejudices and misconceptions – exactly as I experienced them. I believe that these are most readily conveyed by relating events ‘in the moment’. It ensures that the narrative is a story, a journey, rather than an essay. It also helps the reader to understand exactly why I was thinking what I was thinking, because s/he has been led through the same thought process.
In just a couple of places, I cheat and briefly place some future event or insight in brackets, where it’s extremely pertinent and contributes to the story.
Readers have said that I have very successfully matched the maturity of the narrative voice to the narrator’s actual age at the time of the events being related. Obviously, over the decades I become somewhat more mature in my voice, especially once I’ve figured a few things out (like sex).
Actually, this wasn’t as hard as people imagine. Rather than writing a continuous story of everything that ever happened to me, I have written a series of vignettes about events which I remember vividly. These vignettes are placed in chronological order, without any filling in-between. I believe that the reader is smart enough to figure out what is going on and doesn’t need ‘packing material’ between meaningful events. As I say on the first page: ‘This story will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way.’ (That’s one of the future insights, shown in brackets.)
Writing these vignettes was very easy, because they were already written in my head. Or rather, I should say that typing them was easy. You see, whenever anything significant happened (or happens) in my life, I could (or can) hear a detached observer inside my head, who is already writing down the event. All of these events were stored away in my head, already written. All I had to do was to type them out. It was only a question of when I would get around to doing it. I kept putting it off, because I thought that writing a book would be a huge burden of work, whereas in fact it was a joyful journey.
People have commented on how vividly I remember things. I thought that was normal. I didn’t realise that not everyone has such vivid recollections. I have to emphasize that I don’t necessarily remember the precise dates of these events – I have pieced together the chronology by what I can see in the visual memory (for example, who the teacher was). Or I have used the Internet to conduct research to figure it out. For example, I remember clearly that copy of Life magazine arriving in the mail with the front cover feature ‘One Week’s Dead’ (about the Vietnam War) and it being on the coffee table, but I had to research when that actually was.
Another aspect of the writing process is that I did not write in chronological order. I just wrote whatever event I felt like writing about at any particular time and then placed it in the correct position in the Word document. So the writing was never a chore. It was always enjoyable to write, and I hope that this means it is enjoyable to read. I firmly believe that writing and reading should not be torture!
Q: Obviously most of us have already missed out on the opportunity to read your prize-winning science fiction story written when you were 14. In the future, can we expect to be treated to some of your fiction?
First of all, that science fiction short story wasn’t so great. It’s just that the kind of audience which that Saturday morning TV program attracted were not very bright and only semi-literate. (I explain why I was watching in the book.) So any story sent in with correct spelling and grammar would easily lead the way in the competition.
I’ve heard it said that you should write about what you know. Now, I would love to write bestselling Dan Brown-style books about secret government organizations, ancient conspiracies and political intrigue. But I really don’t know anything about these, and my voice would have no authenticity, no credibility.
I am no good at making up stories – I find it very hard to create a plot. But I have a huge set of life experiences which make a good story, and I’ve only just embarked on the road of narrating them. I write mosaic style (in pieces, out of sequence) and, because it’s all true, there’s no continuity issue.
Some of the events described in the Unimagined trilogy are extraordinary. So much so that, if they were fiction, any publisher would reject them, saying that they were ‘implausible’ or ‘unpalatable coincidences’.
If I ever run out of life experiences to write about, then it would be great to write fiction. We shall see.
Q: I don’t want to spoil the ending of your book by asking questions about what has happened since, but Unimagined does – with the exception of the two-page epilogue - end in the mid-1980s. Can you briefly explain what has happened since then that made you want to write this book?
I should just explain something about the ending. Unimagined ends at age 25, and then there is a brief epilogue in which I’m returning to London at age 37, after living for some years in America. The purpose of the epilogue is to bring to conclusion the thread about the Jaguar XJS, and to give the reader a glimpse into the future. The Jaguar XJS is such an excellent metaphor for other themes in Unimagined, I felt it needed a proper ending in the same book.
Some readers are worried about the missing years between 25 and 37, but there won’t be any. More Unimagined will resume the story at age 25.
So, briefly, I started my corporate career in Finance in Unilever, transitioned to management consulting (about Oracle systems) and was sent to Minneapolis on a business assignment. The client decided to hire me and offered me a job – relocating me lock, stock and barrel to Minneapolis. I ended-up working for Ernst & Young Management Consulting and travelled all over the US – living the American dream – before being seduced into a smaller company (Whittman-Hart, later renamed marchFIRST) for apparently huge stock options. These were a mirage and the dot.com crash made things even more desperate. But, miraculously, I was offered a position with General Electric, which brought me back to London in 2000 – but still working closely with the US (and Europe and India). So, America remained an integral part of my life.
I have had a number of intriguing (and in some cases, life-altering) experiences which have changed my perspective in an unimagined way. Amongst these there’s also the gut-wrenching issue of 9/11. Of course, much has been written about this, so I’ll just pick out a couple of personal threads.
One issue which really concerned me was how dehumanizing 9/11 was, and how readily people fell into tribal positions over it (which is exactly what groups like Al-Qaeda want). I don’t believe that there are actually discrete entities called ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ which are diametrically opposed to each other. If you live in ‘the West’, you know that it exists over a huge spectrum of cultures, ethnicities, beliefs, and politics. The same also applies to the Islamic world, and there is considerable overlap between the two. You have to be completely inexperienced with one of these sides to be able to view it as a singular entity – but unfortunately many people are completely ignorant of the ‘other side’.
Some elements would have us believe that ‘the West’ is entirely imperialist, hedonistic, debaucherous and immoral, and that the only acceptable path is joyless, mediaeval Puritanism. Of course, neither of these extremes is true, and we must all find our own comfortable, middle ground – and should be free to do so.
9/11, unfortunately, drove too many people to extreme positions. Some of the material being written on Internet boards (like AOL and Yahoo!) was vile – and could be read from anywhere in the world, thus fuelling the hatred.
For a Muslim, the rock-and-hard-place dilemma was: if we were expected to condemn 9/11 more than everyone else, then that actually created a connection between us and the 19 terrorists, whereas I personally did not feel I had anything in common with them, and they had nothing in common with my Islam. Bin Laden’s goals are actually personal and political (he hates the Al-Sauds, because they did not show him any respect for his incredible achievement of driving the god-less Soviets out of Afghanistan), but when you invoke religion, millions of people immediately suspend all cognitive brain activity and jump on your bandwagon. (It works every time: ‘the West is waging a war on Islam!’ and ‘Jesus opposes stem cell research!’)
This dehumanization and simple black-and-white categorization troubled me greatly, and I wrote Unimagined as a re-humanizing book (of both ‘sides’).
On a really personal level, I had become a Platinum frequent flyer, and really enjoyed travelling around America. On visiting the US just about five weeks after 9/11, what I noticed most was how quiet the airports were. My only negative experience was on a small 6am flight from White Plains to Atlanta. Despite the fact that the aircraft had only about ten passengers, I had been placed next to someone. Once everyone was aboard, I moved across from my aisle seat to a pair of empty seats by a window. I heard the flight attendant immediately inform the pilot, who looked back at me, but didn’t do anything. I didn’t blame anyone for any of this (except the 9/11 terrorists), but I felt slightly hurt. The elevated level of fear was understandable.
It was a year later that things changed dramatically, when Alien Special Registration was introduced for all males, between the ages of 18 and 45, from certain countries of origin. On my 72nd arrival into the United States, I was sent to INS Secondary Inspection, for the first time ever. This delay was about two hours. I’ve been sent there a number of times since. I can fully understand the reasoning behind this, but a part of me is always thinking: “But America, it’s me!”
I have to say, I personally have always found INS officers to be extremely courteous and respectful to me; even the ones sending me to Secondary have been apologetic. (Except for one who was a little bit abrupt – but he was also abrupt to the white French man in front of me. Muslims and French people – known enemies of America?)
Whilst I love America, I have been greatly troubled by some of the actions of the Cheney Administration since 9/11 – actions which I feel are exploitative and contrary to American values, (and frankly, contrary to American interests). These have contributed significantly to the mutual dehumanization.
Oh, did you say ‘briefly’? …
Q: While managing to keep the memoir focused on your experiences and thoughts, you weave short discussions of world events from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that seem to emphasize your themes while showing your growing individual awareness. What role do these and current events play in your book, and what should readers take away from your book when they return to watching the news?
The world situation is a complex, tangled web, with many long strands going back centuries. Anyone who simplifies it into a black-and-white, ‘us and them’ situation is either very stupid or very ruthless. Our geo-political situation didn’t just occur spontaneously.
The reason there is a theocratic regime in Iran today is because the US installed and supported the brutal, authoritarian Shah – who tortured pro-Democracy opponents – and the only opposition movement which could gain enough critical mass to overthrow him was the one based on religion. And then the US (and other Western countries) gave support to Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran and the subsequent brutal eight-year war. No wonder there is so much bad feeling, when the natural state between Iran and the US should be one of warmth. I see the US-Iran tension as one of bruised egos and simmering resentment – so the more that the US tells Iran not to do something, the more Iran is going to do it (simple schoolyard psychology). A lot of re-humanization and forgiveness needs to take place to normalize relations.
The reason Afghanistan is in such a sorry state is that we (the West and Pakistan) created the modern concept of Jihad to rally volunteers to drive the Soviets out. (I’m not aware of suicide bombing being a technique used in the anti-Soviet Jihad – that appears to be a later innovation, viable only when you can find broken people who feel they have nothing left to lose). We supplied the Mujahideen with weaponry and training and those amazing Stinger missiles. I imagine that once you’ve become accustomed to firing Stinger missiles at helicopter gunships – what a high that must give! – then returning to agriculture or construction must seem somewhat dull. Unfortunately, we abandoned Afghanistan to implode once the Soviets were gone – the Mujahideen started fighting each other, and the Taliban won. The shocking thought that occurred to me recently was: Maybe the Soviets were the best government that Afghanistan has had in recent times? At least they were committed to women’s education and rights. I never imagined that I would ever think such a thought!
We don’t just come to understand the world in a sudden burst of enlightenment (I mean the geo-political world, not the metaphysical one). We pick up threads and it dawns on us gradually.
Since Unimagined is a personal and authentic journey, it has many strands and some of these concern the external world. As I said earlier, I wanted the reader to be ‘in the moment’ with me and have my understanding at that point in time. My knowledge of the world came slowly (and is still developing, of course) as I picked up little bits of information and heard about events along the way: Vietnam war, moon landings, India-Pakistan war, Munich Olympics, oil-rich Arabs, Margaret Thatcher, Iranian Revolution and so on.
There’s also a risk of events being forgotten, so I wanted to remind the reader of some of those which have shaped today’s world. I had a very nice letter recently from Jimmy Carter, thanking me for the copy of Unimagined which I had sent him. I mentioned this letter to a younger co-worker, and she said, ‘Who’s Jimmy Carter?’ Well, she was just a haploid cell during his Presidency.
References to historical events also serve to give the narrative its place in time, when so much has changed so quickly. We need to remember that e-mail and the Internet have been with us for such a short time. The concept of having instant and free communication with someone thousands of miles away was unimagined for most of my lifetime.
Q: Besides Jimmy Carter, did you send Unimagined to any other famous Americans?
Unimagined is primarily a re-humanizing book, and therefore I think Oprah would appreciate it and might be willing to bring it to a wider audience. So I sent her a few copies, and I wrote to some of the people around the world who have sent me wonderful e-mails about Unimagined, and I asked them if they wouldn’t mind encouraging Oprah to give it a try (using the Contact Us page on Oprah.com). We shall see what happens.
I sent a copy to Barack Obama, months before he was nominated, with the inscription: ‘Barack, The world is desperate for change. America must lead the way. I hope you lead America. Best wishes, Imran Ahmad’
Shortly after this, all I heard him start talking about was change, change, change.
Q: And finally, what are three books you recommend we all read?
Well, the first three books which come to mind are: Unimagined, More Unimagined and The Path Unimagined. Oh wait … I get it … this part’s not about me.
Well, I’m still going to cheat and mention three sets of books.
Firstly, the final trilogy of James Bond novels by Ian Fleming: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (in which Jame Bond falls in love and gets married and widowed); You Only Live Twice (in which he seeks vengeance at all costs, and falls into the hands of the KGB); The Man With the Golden Gun (in which, brainwashed, he tries to kill his boss and, after recovery, is sent away on a mission which M hopes will be the end of him).
I have always felt that Ian Fleming was a storytelling genius. These books cost me my place in medical school – they were compelling, I couldn’t stop reading them, when I was supposed to be preparing for high school exams (anyway, I hated the subjects I was allegedly studying). Fleming had the writing process perfected: vacation home in Jamaica; 1,000 words and snorkelling in the morning; lunch; 1,000 words and snorkelling in the afternoon; leisurely cocktails and dinner in the evening; book completed in less than two months. To be fair, he was writing on a manual typewriter and it is easy for us to forget how much more convenient the mechanics of writing have become.
Secondly, the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Quite apart from being an entertaining story, there are many levels of meaning in this epic, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to unravel them all.
Thirdly, the Eckhart Tolle books: The Power of Now and A New Earth. I listened to the audio version of The Power of Now on a long haul flight to Australia. It was a surreal experience. A New Earth has so many insights which make perfect sense, it has completely changed my perspective. I think that I now understand, and am learning to moderate, my conditioned responses to what I perceive as negative events. Is that so?
There is actually a process of evolution across these books: from the simple days of James Bond, through the exploration of mythical beliefs in His Dark Materials, to the enlightened Consciousness of the Eckhart Tolle books.
Now, if only entire tribes and nations could let go of the pain of their collective Past.
You can visit Imran Ahmad’s website at www.unimagined.co.uk.
A few years ago I had the good fortune of hearing Mr. Walcott read a portion of his book-length poem Omeros (1990) in person. He has an incredible voice – soft and deep – and the beautiful language really struck me. I bought the book and began to read it, though when it didn’t flow as naturally for me as when Walcott read it I put it down. Then a month or two ago I heard a feature on the BBC World Service Book Club about the poem (just a week ago the same program convinced me it’s time I gave Toni Morrison’s Beloved another read, even though I didn’t like it the first time). I decided that Omeros must be approached again.
(Incidentally, the painting on the cover was also done by Walcott)
This is the only modern epic (thought Walcott says he doesn’t see this poem as “epic”) poem I’ve read, so I have no ability to compare it to what else is being done today. Walcott himself has written a few others (e.g. Tiepolos Hound and Prodigal). However, I have read a few of the classics – The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Aeneid, and The Divine Comedy – and their power stretches over the centuries. Omeros pays tribute to all of these poems: ”Omeros” is Greek for Homer; the poem’s meter is hexameter; he makes great use of compound words, as Beowulf; and the structure of the verse is terza rima, as The Divine Comedy). Surely the tribute is not limited to these quite obvious schemes, but they were the ones that I could point out. This appropriation is entirely appropriate – Walcott is not just being a virtuoso; one of the largest themes in the book is the influence of history, how things that happened once, even if not remembered, still leave their mark. Much of the allusions are done out of the spirit of memory, not mimicry.
This modern day epic poem is centered on the Island of St. Lucia in the Carribean. Two of the main characters, though there are other threads to the story, are named Achille and Hector. They . . . well, let Walcott introduce them:
Hector came out from the shade. And Achille, the
moment he saw him carrying the cutlass, un homme
fou, a madman eaten with envy, replaced the tin
he had borrowed from Hector’s canoe neatly back in the prow
of Hector’s boat. Then Achille, who had had enough
of this madman, wiped and hefted his own blade.
And now the villagers emerged from the green shade
of the almonds and wax-leaved manchineels, for the face-off
that Hector wanted. Achille walked off and waited
at the warm shallow’s edge. Hector strode towards him.
The villagers followed, as the surf abated
its sound, its fear cowering at the beach’s rim.
Then, far out at sea, in a sparkling shower
arrows of rain arched from the emerald breakwater
of the reef, the shafts travelling with clear power
in the sun, and behind them, ranged for the slaughter,
stood villagers, shouting, with a sound like the shoal,
and hoisting armes to the light. Hector ran, splashing
in shallows mixed with the drizzle, towards Achille,
his cutlasss lifted. The surf, in anger, gnashing
its tail like a foaming dogfight. Men can kill
their own brothers in rage, but the madman who tore
Achille’s undershirt from one shoulder also tore
at his heart. The rage that felt against Hector
was shame. To go crazy for an old bailing tin
crusted with rust! The duel of these fishermen
was over a shadow and its name was Helen.
Later we get: ‘Helen said: “Girl, I pregnant, / but I don’t know for who.” Another Homeric echo is a blind poet named Seven Seas. And it is during his first introduction that we get the Homeric invocation of the muse, who is Homer himself here.
Except for one hand he sat as still as marble,
with his egg-white eyes, fingers recounting the past
of another sea, measured by the stroking oars.
O open this day with the conch’s moan, Omeros,
as you did in my boyhood, when I was a noun
gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise.
As you can see, there are many odes to Homer in particular in this poem. However, one should not be under the impression that Walcott is revisioning one of Homer’s epics, juxtaposing the modern Carribean with Homer’s Aegean; this is no Ulysses and Walcott is not attempting to redo what Joyce did. On the contrary, alluding to Homer is only one of the ways this book reaches across time to show just how connected, or disconnected, things really are. And St. Lucia - with its wealth of cultural heritage bearing from Europe, Africa, and the Americas, not to mention its own unique history of colonization, slavery, and tourism – is a perfect setting for such a work.
For example, one part of the book that stood out to me the first time was the history of slavery on the island. The opening lines of the book belong to Philoctete, as he shows off the island to some tourists and eventually, for some extra money, shows them a scar on his leg caused by a rusty anchor. A few pages later, we are taken to see the beginning of the scar:
“Mais qui ca qui rivait-’ous. Philoctete?”
“But what is wrong wif you, Philoctete?”
“I am blest
wif this wound, Ma Kilman, qui pas ka querir piece.
Which will never heal.”
“Well, you musr take it easy.
Go home and lie down, give the foot a lickle rest.”
Philoctet, his trouser-legs rolled, stares out to sea
from the worn rumshop window. The itch in the sore
tingles like the tendrils of the anemone,
and the ouffed blister of Portuguese man-o’-war.
He believed the swelling came from the chained ankles
of his grandfathers. Or else why was there no cure?
That the cross he carried was not only the anchor’s
but that of his race, for a village black and poor
as the pigs that rooted in its burning garbage,
then were hooked on the anchors of the abattoir.
Now, Philoctete has no memory of slavery. Those belong to his ancestors. What he can see is more the resonance, or the signal, of slavery. Incidentally, we know from the first page that the wound is eventually cured, but this is no sentimental journey, giving humans more credit than they deserve.
Moving away from direct Homeric reference, there is also Major Plunkett and his wife Maud. We first meet him sipping a Guinness, uncomfortable with his middle-class Britishness. This is almost sans Homer, but Major Plunkett is looking for a son. And like other characters in the book, Plunkett is wounded. It is here that Walcott inserts himself into the work for the first time:
This wound I have stitched into Plunkett’s character.
He has to be wounded, affliction is one theme
of this work, this fiction, since every “I” is a
fiction finally. Phantom narrator, resume:
Getting through this book is no easy endeavor. The layers of meaning are in place for years and years of dedicated scholarship, something most of us are not in a position to take on. However, there is still much to be gleaned from this book on a first read, and it is an enjoyable experience. In fact my only major problem with it – and it’s a problem I have when I read poetry in general - is that often I’m distracted by the beauty of the language and don’t pay attention to what it is actually saying. I get sound but no meaning. Many times I read a paragraph, or an entire section, and couldn’t tell someone next to me what it was about. This is by no means a failing of the book. It’s just another layer of skill to be enjoyed in a book worth the time.
After warming up to Greene with The Tenth Man and The Quiet American I have wasted very little time figuring out what else he’s written that I should read. I know that Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory are musts, and I also found The End of the Affair (1951) highly praised. (Please let me know if I’m missing other “musts” in this list.) The End of the Affair‘s small size pushed it up to the top of the Greene TBR pile. Interestingly, while reading it, I found myself thinking back on my recent introduction to Evelyn Waugh with his Brideshead Revisited. Further research into the matter showed that I was far from the first to make this connection. It looks like Greene himself consciously used Brideshead as a jumping off point. I guess as I continue to get to know these “Catholic” authors, this coincidence of timing could be, uh, providential?
The plot is simple. Maurice Bendrix, a novelist and the first person narrator of this novel, begins the story in the middle. “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” The moment chosen is a January night in 1946, two years after Sarah Miles inexplicably broke off her affair with Bendrix. On this night, Bendrix is walking outside when he sees Henry Miles, the cuckold, Sarah’s husband. Here is how Bendrix introduces their encounter:
If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry – I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .
Bendrix is a spiteful fellow (a mean man, as Sarah’s mother would perhaps say). Through the novel we feel his anger at all three people mentioned in that passage above, and I have to say it’s easy to see why he’s not that happy. He admittedly “measured love by the extent of my jealousy,” and yet he is convinced he was truly happy during the affair. And now, two years later, he meets Henry and discovers that Henry finally suspects that Sarah is being unfaithful to him. Confiding in Bendrix, Henry explains his despair as he thinks of his unfaithful wife. Greene’s abilities shine through here as he depicts Bendrix’s bitterness at the memory of Sarah, his jealousy of her engaging in another affair, and his hatred / spite / condescending humor toward Henry (“His questions reminded me of how easy he had been to deceive: so easy that he seemed to me almost a coniver at his wife’s unfaithfulness . . . .”)
Henry is uncertain about how to move forward. He is tempted to hire out a private investigator to trail his wife but is ashamed at the thought, mostly because it would look bad for him. Bendrix offers to hire one for him. In the meantime, Sarah returns and we get a slight sense of just how physical one of the affairs in this book is going to be:
How can I make a stranger see her as she stopped in the hall at the foot of the stairs and turned to us? I have never been able to describe my fictitious characters except by their actions. It has always seemed to me that in a novel the reader should be allowed to imagine a character in any way he chooses: I do not want to supply him with ready-made illustrations. Now I am betrayed by my own technique, for I do not want any other woman substituted for Sarah, I want the reader to see the one broad forehead and bold mouth, the conformation of the skull, but all I can convey is an indeterminate figure turning in the dripping macintosh, saying, ‘Yes, Henry?’ and then ‘You?’
With subdued acrimony, Bendrix leaves the Miles’s home. But after two years of wondering why she ended their affair, Bendrix decides to hire that private investigator (from the Savage detective agency, incidentally), ”a specialist who dealt in only one disease of which he knew every symptom.” What Bendrix uncovers gives him hope and reason to become even more bitter, perhaps eternally bitter. It brings to the fore his memories of their last days together, days that were seemingly happy ones, but it also brings Bendrix to a confrontation of the one whom she has chosen to love even as she used to hate.
The strength and limitation of the novel is not in this intriguing plot. Indeed, what I’ve relayed above almost makes this novel sound like one of Greene’s plot-moving “entertainments.” But Greene really is putting his own take on Brideshead Revisited‘s explicit rumination on religion, particularly Catholicism. None of the characters in the novel believe in God in 1939 but by the end of the novel all three have an uncomfortable inkling that he does exist. After all, how can one hate someone so profoundly if one doesn’t believe in him. I wasn’t quite expecting Greene to portray God as the ultimate antagonist in this novel; nevertheless, his characters can say, “I’ve caught belief like a disease.”
Just as this expands the scope of the novel, however, it also limits it. It felt to me that Greene was attempting so hard to bring God into the mix that other elements of the novel were lost in the mix. It was blatant and overshadowed much of Greene’s subtlety, or at least that’s how I felt. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed how Greene, in a way, used a novelist’s narrative technique to link to a philosophy on the eternities. While overall I felt that Greene deadened the potential resonating echoes this novel could have produced, there are still some passages resonating in me:
If I were writing a novel I would end it here: a novel, I used to think, has to end somewhere, but I’m beginning to believe my realism has been at fault all these years, for nothing in life now ever seems to end.
There are those books out there that one hears of frequently but has no desire to read. All the King’s Men (1946) was one of those for me. Nevertheless, one day my interest was piqued by the “Restored Edition” put together from the original notes by Noel Polk, textual editor of the works of William Faulkner, and published in 2001. Polk has an editorial afterword in which he explains some of the differences between this version and the one published in 1946. One obvious difference is that the infamous name of Willie Stark has been changed back to Warren’s original: Willie Talos. A less obvious change, and one I’m personally thankful for since I think Warren has a better feel than his editors, is the replacement of passages deleted to make sure the novel conformed to the era’s sense of “taste.” For example, this sentence, written by the intense, jaded James Burden: ”To hell with Adam, I told myself, did he think he could put lead seals on his sister’s drawers. Hell, somebody had probably hosed her already.” Burden says this in retrospect, and it is a very ironic statement, not simple prurience. Now, I haven’t read the original version and cannot comment on whether this restoration is really warranted. I can say, however, that reading the book is.
As I said above, I never wanted to read this. Seeing this edition, however, I pulled it from the shelf and read the first paragraph, which, incidentally, is different than the original’s, which I have since read and which did not pull me in.
You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of your neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lord Gawd, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!” And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and on it in black a skull-and-cross-bones. Later in love-vine will climb up it, out of the weeds.
Here we meet one of my favorite narrators, Jack Burden, riding in the car with his boss, the governor and political powerhouse Willie Talos (or Stark for most of you). Jack’s job: to dig up dirt on people in Willie’s way. Warren’s gifts in poetry (he is the only author to have won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – for this book – and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) are used to great effect to introduce Burden, a jaded former history student. He reminds me of one of my other favorite narrators, Nathan Zuckerman, both equally capable of saying, “Goodbye, Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you.”
But first, let’s look at what I think is the pseudo-subject of the novel: Willie the politician. After rising up from nowhere as a young idealist, now that Willie is in power, he has let it overtake him. Now corrupt, it’s much less about the politics and much more about kickbacks and maintaining power in the power game.
“My God, you talk like Byram was human! He’s a thing! You don’t prosecute an adding machine if a spring goes bust and makes a mistake. You fix it. Well, I fixed Byram. I fixed him so his unborn great-grand-children will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why. Boy, it will be the shock in the genes, and their teeth will be set on edge. Hell, Byram is just something you use, and he’ll sure be useful from now on.”
Jack Burden watches in awe as his larger-than-life boss dominates every relationship he enters. Indeed, Willie is an interesting character, and Warren draws him up well. There are moments we truly feel pity for him and wish him well along with moments when we begin to plan our own assassination attempts.
But to me the true subject, and a far more interesting subject, is Burden himself. Once a history student who quit because he got a bit to close to some unattainable truth, he now delves into other’s pasts for Willie. However, as disinterested as he is, he can never completely separate his own existence and identity from his ventures into the past. Burden’s struggle to come to grips with his own identity in a world he despises enough that he doesn’t care to help even when he can are by far Warren’s most penetrating insights. It is in these passages that Warren lets his poetic pen slip into the stream of his prose:
There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren’t other people there wouldn’t be any you because what you do, which is who you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in ther rain at night alone, for then you aren’t you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under your foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn’t really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place.
But Jack’s philosophical meanderings don’t deal with identity only. While attempting to complete his first major venture into the past, this time for a research project at school, Jack comes upon philosophical realizations that make him quit out of fear and adopt his uncaring attitude about his and other people’s lives. Now called upon to do another large venture into the past to find some dirt on Judge Irwin, Jack begins to distinguish between facts and truth. Judge Irwin played a large role in Jack’s youth; indeed, Jack’s past includes most of the book’s central characters: his lost love Anne Stanton, her brother Adam, and Judge Irwin himself. And Jack is now smart enough, or at least cynical enough, to know that the people he knew in the past no longer exist but that the actions of the past have ramifications that ripple out forever:
The friend of your youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore, speaks a name – Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave – which belongs to that now non-existent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger.
As the book marches and flows on, the stories of Willie and Jack dance around each other and the whole of the novel is a powerful look at human nature and corruption. Notice I haven’t said a lot about politics, though this is considered the preeminent novel on American politics. In fact, Willie is based on real life governor Huey P. Long. Sure, politics is in the mix, but Warren’s book is not so limited.