November 2009 Archives

A literary version of the Surgeon General's warning

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Smoking_Kills.jpgJoan Didion's authorial voice is distinctive: compelling, direct, succinct . . . and not very likable.  Having now read The Year of Magical Thinking, A Book of Common Prayer and assorted book reviews in The New York Review of Books, I am confident that anything she's written is worth reading, thought-provoking and intelligent . . . but I'll never consider her a "favorite."

Her authorial voice is, I believe, at the root my withholding of affection.  She has the equivalent of "smoker's voice" for authors.  The content, style and command of language can all impress, but the sound is too thin and raspy to resonate.   

Damage not to her (metaphoric) lungs, but to her (actual) viscera may be the culprit underlying the lack of vibrancy to her authorial voice.  Didion reads like a "brain in a box": her writing is so top-heavy cerebral that "cold" and "distant" seem as inadequate descriptors as they would be of Pluto.

Ultimately, readers need a balance of cerebral and emotional in writing before an author's words-on-the-page manifest as the voice of a human with whom we can sympathize.  That transformation doesn't happen for me with Didion.  At the close of a piece by her, I always think, "Interesting," but any further interest I'll have in composition will be only the curiosity as to why I can't honestly say that I like the author.

(Image courtesy of Berkeley University Visualization CS294-10 Fall 08 wiki)   

Note to Self

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Having become excited about Henry James by Alan Hollinghurst's infectious enthusiasm for James in The Line of Beauty, I for some reason decided, instead of reading Henry James, to read Colm Toíbín's The Master, a biography of Henry James in novel form.

I cannot explain why this course of action seemed the logical expression of my interest in James' novels.  

I was disappointed by The Master, finding James the man less than his work.

Unfair, of course, to James; I cannot think of a single artist who isn't less than his or her work.

Unfair, as well, to Toíbín, whose achievement in The Master cannot credibly be criticized for not being one by Henry James.

No option, I'm afraid, but to pick up a novel by James.  I just wish Portrait of a Lady hadn't been so long and, I can't help thinking, contrived . . . .
Two major themes animate Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer: (1) the fine line between telling stories to rationalize our world and deluding ourselves, and (2) the way the personalities (and specifically the problem of ascertaining a person's motive) create ambiguities intolerable to a storyteller. 

Grace Strasser-Mendana, the narrator of A Book of Common Prayer, tells the story of Charlotte Amelia Douglas - a "delusional" woman (p. 1) who doesn't "make enough distinctions" (p. 1), who "dreams her life" (p. 21), whose life (dreamed or otherwise) is "unexamined" (p. 112).  Or so Grace begins the story thinking; by the end, she's not so sure:

All I know now is that when I think of Charlotte Douglas walking in the hot night wind toward the lights at the Capilla del Mar I am less and less certain that this story has been one of delusion.
p. 272. 

This doubt is courtesy of Grace's growing appreciation, as she tells Charlotte's story, of a crucial similarity between the women: their lack of success in dealing with the "personalities" in their lives.  "Personalities" in A Book of Common Prayer complicate the problem of determining motive and, therefore, the morality of action.  Grace is open about her inability to manage this ambiguity:

[As an anthropologist, I] did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grasso . . . and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all.
Let me go further.
I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all.
As a result, I "retired" from that field . . . and took up the amateur study of biochemistry, a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and "personality" absent. 
(p. 12.) 

Secure in her biochemistry pursuits, having reduced the ambiguity factor in her life to acceptable levels, Grace looks down on Charlotte until she realizes that Charlotte's "delusions" serve the same role as Grace's biochemistry experiments: they cut down the ambiguity.  Charlotte's sentimental, inconsistent and childish "delusions" are neither more nor less than the stories Charlotte tells herself to make sense of the world, a process that - far from indicating mental illness - is sane, rational and universal. 

Indeed, Grace's own process of storytelling is no broader or less idiosyncratic than Charlotte's.  Where Charlotte favors sentiment, Grace favors science; the inconsistencies in Charlotte's stories find their twin in the doubts and unreliabilities that Grace flags in her own; the childish flavor to Charlotte's stories is occupied, in Grace's, by seriousness. 
On the surface of the text - although latent in Grace's conscious narration - is the fact that Grace has mistaken Charlotte's stories for delusions because Charlotte's stories tackle head-on a thorny issue that Grace has chosen to elide: maternal response to an unlovable, criminal child. 

Charlotte's daughter Marin is a Weather Underground-style revolutionary on the lam, while Grace's son Gerardo plays Latin American coup politics like backgammon and "is lost to" her. (p. 20.)  Grace has had "to learn how to make conversation by day and avoid it in the dark, how to pretend . . . that [her] indifference to [Gerardo's] presence derives from [her] being asleep, or in pain, or hallucinating."  (p. 55.)  Grace's son, like Charlotte's daughter, is a type of terrorist, and Grace's avoidance and suppression of her crushing disappointment and dissolution of maternal love encompasses a rejection and belittling of Charlotte's response to an entirely too similar predicament.

What Grace cannot deny, however, is Charlotte's heroism: performing a tracheotomy, standing up to a military official who stole cholera vaccine that she was administering, caring for her hydrocephalic baby girl until she died in Charlotte's arms, rescuing health-care workers in the aftermath of an clinic bombing.  These actions evince Charlotte's courage and willfulness and give her death a "hopeful" (p. 1) valence: Charlotte chose the death she wanted - at the end of a gun wielded by a guerrillero stand-in for Marin (this death being Charlotte's acceptance of Marin's unconditional rejection).

Grace would never make the same choice.  Nonetheless, without entirely understanding Charlotte, Grace is constrained to respect what she recognized as an unquestionably decisive, unambiguous - non-delusional - and final response to a "personality."  Reluctantly, Grace beings to release her judgment of Charlotte, as Grace gains an understanding that her own choices are only questionably - if that - superior to Charlotte's.  As Warren, Charlotte's tyrannical and destructive first husband (one of the book's many challenging male "personalities"), writes in a letter found on his dead body, "You were both wrong but it's all the same in the end."  (p. 259.) 

Although she doesn't come out and say it, Grace comes to agree: it's all the same in the end, scientific Grace and delusional Charlotte, choosing death (Charlotte) and accepting that it wastes you (Grace, who has pancreatic cancer).  The problem of reducing ambiguity to the point where moral action is possible does not admit of a single solution, and our defensiveness in the face different approaches is redeemed by our recognition of courageous conviction when it occurs, however abhorrent the circumstances to us. 

Without knowing that she would end with this acceptance, Grace instinctively begins A Book of Common Prayer by bearing witness - "I will be her witness" (p. 1) - a form of assent, of seconding, of agreement that these women are unable to find with the personalities in their lives.  That Grace concludes the novel saying, "I have not been the witness I wanted to be" (p. 272) is a finish as hopeful for Grace as Charlotte's was for her. 

(Photo of Joan Didion from Random House)

Heavy on pretence

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Opening Jeanette Winterson's Weight, the first of many prefatory pages was about the series, The Myths, of which Weight - a refashioning of the myth of Atlas - is a part:

Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives - they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.
Who could argue?  But as a description of a series of modern retellings ancient myths, the statement fails in its explanatory purpose: if the very power of myths is their enduring relevance, why commission their retelling, as opposed to returning to the originals?

In Winterson's Introduction, the third prefatory passage in the book (by the Intro, I was antsy for her to get started already), Winterson attempts an answer:

My work is full of Cover Versions.  I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently.  In the re-telling comes a new emphasis or bias, and the new arrangement of the key elements demands that fresh material be injected into the existing texts.
Weight, p. xviii.

Retelling stories is a common impulse.  Shakespeare (who used commonly available plots) did it; Tom Stoppard returned the favor in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to fantastic comic effect; and other examples across high and low fiction abound, from Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl to Anita Diamant's The Red Tent.

But a new emphasis or bias doesn't necessarily deepen the literary (as opposed to sociological, historical, anthropological or psychological) value of the work; and an injection of fresh material doesn't necessarily enhance the old story line.  New for the sake of being new is as gratuitous as the "[r]eality TV or the kind of plodding fiction that only works as low-grade documentary" that Winterson condemns in her Intro (p. xix).

In the case of Weight, Winterson ends up aping that of which she claims to disapprove.  After calling herself a "writer . . . who believes in the power of story telling for its mythic and not its explanatory qualities" (p. xx), she litters her retold myth with explanations:

Autobiography is not important.  Authenticity is important. . . . I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not say it is either confessional or memoir.  Simply, it is real.

p xix.  And:

When I was born my mother gave me away to a stranger.  I had no say in that.  It was her decision my fate.

Later, my adopted mother rejected me too.  And told me I was none of her, which was true.

Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself.

My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.
p. 97.  And:

I am good at walking away.  Rejection teaches you how to reject.  I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life.  I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once.  I stayed on the run.
p. 98.  And:

That's why I write fiction - so that I can keep telling the story.  I return to problems I can't solve, not because I'm an idiot, but because the real problems can't be solved. . . . The more we see, the more we discover there is to see.
p. 137.

Save it for counseling, Jeanette!  This irrelevant content is the same kind of "'true life' account[] that occup[ies] the space where imagination used to sit" that she criticizes, "explanatory" rather than "mythic" writing.  Coming on the heels of all her protesting against such dross, her own "mythic" contribution seems pretentious. 

In Weight, Winterson's feather-light achievement is to illustrate, not the "universal" and "timeless" aspects of the myth, but the self-absorbed, victim-centric obsessions of the moment.  For an "explor[ation of] our desires, our fears, our longings, and . . . narratives that remind us what it means to be human," read the Greeks. 

Out of [touch in] Africa

Harry_Thuku2.jpgKaren Blixen's writing has long been recognized as being significant as much for what it omitted as for the subjects on which it dwells.  But that recognition has focused largely on Blixen's coyness about her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton.  Obfuscation seems to have been the modus operandi of their relationship.  As Errol Trzebinski recounts in Silence Will Speak:

Friends who knew Tania and Denys well - few were privileged to observe their relationship closely - concluded that they fully intended to perpetuate the aura of mystique which from the start has served to swathe and protect them in an enigmatic smoke-screen.
. . . .
"Tania and Denys were both very elusive and meant to be" . . . .
p. 150 (Denys called Karen "Tania" after "Titania," the Queen of the Faeries in A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Reading Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. and John Nottingham's The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya, I realized that omission and obfuscation characterized another relationship in Blixen's life: that of her self-touted love for her "black brother." (Karen Blixen, Letters from Africa, p. 390.)

Although Blixen's tenure in Kenya, from 1914 to 1931, spans important, early expressions of black Kenyan political agitation against the British government, she doesn't count this behavior in her inventory of Native capacities.  Her blindness is significant because Blixen was not immune to politics in Kenya: she rails about political maneuvering by the settlers ("I am so angry with the English because they want to impose higher taxes on them [the Natives]," Letters from Africa, p. 240).  But while white political activity provoked her sense of noblesse oblige, black Kenyan political activity completely escapes mention in her writing.

In March 1922, for example, the British arrested Harry Thuku (pictured), an activist who wrote a letter demanding redress of grievances from the British government.  After his arrest, Kenyans calling for his release converged on the detention center in Nairobi.  The protest ended in gunfire and between 21 and 56 deaths.

Among the many remarks of note in Karen Blixen's letters from 1922 are references her troubles with Bror, to her sister's death, to resuming painting, to her love of lilies, to her hair loss, to her brother Thomas' visit, and to books she and Thomas are reading, but the most singular political event of the year finds no mention.  (Caveat: some possibility exists that mention of Harry Thuku was not a topic the editors of her letters thought worthwhile to allow to remain in the letters, but - looking at entirety of her correspondence from Africa and her concerns during her years there - the possibility seems remote.) 

Black people - her servants being the only ones she knows - do crop up in her letters from 1922:  she bemoans her cook, Isa, being poisoned by his wife, and she celebrates her servant Juma's daughter, who "sets the table and makes toast and is full of her own importance as a houseboy."  (Letters from Africa, p. 132-133).

What explains this obliviousness by a writer who, in her own estimation and that of many critics, is incisive in her observations and humane in her depictions?  Shadows on the Grass, Blixen's superfluous follow-on to Out of Africa, provides a clue.  

Two pages into Shadows on the Grass, Blixen begins rhapsodizing about the paradigm of Master and Servant: the servant "needs a master in order to be himself."  (Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass, p. 378-379.)  Her notion that blacks need a white telling them what to do in order to self-actualize is only too clear.  

The thing about servants - good servants, anyway - is that they're not disobedient.  They don't demand redress of grievances in a threatening way.  "Agitation" and "activism" are not their domain.  One the contrary, good servants have, as Karen Blixen says of black Kenyans in Out of Africa, an "immense gift for resignation" and keep "up a peculiar self-feeling in their relations to those who persecute[] them."  (Out of Africa, p. 144.) 

"Good servants" - not activists - seems to be all Karen Blixen can accept in the way of a role for black Kenyans in their relations with whites (that is, unless the black Kenyans are helpless, impoverished, ignorants in need of medical attention, in which case she is happy to help).   

In fairness, Blixen recognizes that some Africans - the Masai, for example - are warriors, not servants; but the Masai are pointedly outside the scope of white-black relations: they're isolated, on their "reserve."  And although Blixen acknowledges that Kinanjui is a Kikuyu chief - not a servant - in Kinanjui's relationship with her, his role is to provide her farm with labor: that is, servants.  When Kinanjui asks for a favor in return - to retire to her farm to die - she refuses him.  

Outside the scope of Master-Servant relations, Blixen doesn't have any capacity for interaction with black Kenyans because, ultimately, what seems to have stimulated her "love" for her "black brother" was the power she held over them.  Less educated than she wanted to be, less attractive than she'd hoped, perpetually struggling with her weight, dependent on her family for money, infected with syphilis and then abandoned by her husband, passed over for marriage by her lover, unsuccessful in her business endeavors, hopeless as a farm manager, the predominant experience of Karen Blixen's life in Kenya, as articulated in her letters, was helplessness and disempowerment.  Only in her relationship with the blacks around her was she able to fancy herself in control, although - if she recognized this fact - she wasn't able to record it in writing.  

What she does commit to paper, repeatedly, is a fixation with feudalism and the nobility of long-ago relations of power that, in the modern world, are recognized as unfair.  I don't doubt the sincerity that characterizes her status as an aristocracy groupie; but her romanticization of the past served as a convenient screen behind which to hide troubling questions about her power over the blacks on her farm.  

That Harry Thuku and black political activity don't manifest in Blixen's writing is therefore no surprise: Blixen defends herself by failing to see what she can't imagine, and her imagination was remarkably fixated by feudalism.

(Photo of Harry Thuku from Black Past)
Elspeth Huxley and Lewis S.B. Leakey were both born and raised in what is now Kenya in the early parts of the twentieth century (when the territory was British East Africa).  Both were keen observers, cogent critical thinkers, articulate voices, adventurous travelers and prolific in their works and writings.  They were also both sympathetic to black Africans and adopted balanced perspectives about colonization and its impacts on settlers and natives.

Despite these similarities, they come out on different sides of a question of pressing importance and, in light of my work at the UN Environment Programme, immediacy in my own daily life: environmental degradation.

Kenya currently is suffering a long-running and debilitating drought.  Electricity - much of which is generated by hydropower - has been rationed because the water levels are too low to produce sufficient supply.  Crops are failing, and people in Samburu are dying of starvation in the same horrifying manner (if not numbers) as their forerunners in Biafra and Ethiopia did.

In 2009, with our current knowledge of climate change, Kenya's condition looks like the effects of increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - and maybe it is.  But drought and the attendant sufferings aren't new in Kenya, and people have long cultivated knowledge about water, its sources and the impacts human activity can have on its availability.

Writing in 1963 on the cusp of Kenyan independence, in the context of the the handover from white national forest administrators to their black successors, Huxley writes:

The Masai are no respecter of forests.  Trees, to them, are enemies which rob them of potential grazing, rather than allies which anchor soil and make of it a sponge to absorb rainfall and return it in the form of springs.  The Masai drive their herds up into the glades and start fires which destroy the vegetation.

Across the Rift [Valley], on the south-western slopes of the Mau escarpment, you can count at least a dozen fires every time you fly over the mountains.  You can see blackened patches and clearings hoed for crops (a lot of these Masai have Kikuyu wives who cultivate) and the gloomy spectacle of human predators colonizing and spoiling the forests.  Already springs are dwindling and soon rivers that have always flowed the year through will be turned into seasonal streams that come down in spate in wet seasons, and dry up altogether in between.  Then what will the Masai do for water?  When their streams turn into dry, sandy river-beds they will shrug their shoulders and say shauri ya Mungu: the affair of God.  Perhaps it is, for tolerating so much human stupidity.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 20

The argument that water shortage in Kenya had a human - and specifically "native" - cause was not original in Huxley's day.  Almost thirty years earlier, in 1936 - and about sixty years before the term "climate change" had entered our daily discourse - Lewis Leakey debunked the "blame the natives" theory of water shortage in Kenya:

The soil erosion which is taking place so alarmingly in some parts of the country, and the destruction of so much forest by fires, are both commonly attributed to the natives and their carelessness.  I believe,  however, that the more important factor governing both these troubles is a purely climactic one, although it is probably true that excessive grazing by goats and sheep, and carelessness with fire in forest areas, is hastening the process of nature.

If dessication really goes on for the next two or three hundred years at the rate at which it has been at work in the past few hundred, it will not only be the European community in Kenya that will suffer but also the natives, and as they have less money at their disposal for water boring and for water conservation, the latter will probably suffer the worst.
Lewis S.B. Leakey, Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, p. 169

With the scientist's perspective of drought patterns over hundreds of years, Leakey was able to identify Kenya - as early as 1936 and perhaps earlier - as being in a pattern of "dessication" caused by "climactic" factors.  Leakey understood that the drying up had started centuries earlier; and, moreover, that this latest phase was not the first in a series of swings between lushland and desert that Kenya had experienced over millennia.

Certainly, greenhouse gas emissions may be responsible for a speeding-up of this dessication process; what Leakey thought might happen in two or three hundred years might be occurring in sixty to one hundred.  Still, the comparison between Leakey and Huxley is significant: even the sharpest eye is apt to misconstrue what it sees without the scope of other disciplines and perhaps hundreds of years.

On the other hand, consider the perspective of Stephen Dobyns in his poem, "Where We Are (after Bede)."  Dobyns doesn't have (so far as I'm aware) any exposure to Kenya, let alone opportunities for close analysis of its people, soil layers or climactic patterns.  Nonetheless, from his perch of severe distance (nay, ignorance), he sums up climate change in Kenya (and worldwide) better than either Leakey or Huxley could:

This is where we are in history - to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night - a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.   

Safari metabolism

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Giraffe2.jpgTo research my fourth novel, I have been spending time on safari in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, where I can experience environmental conditions that approach those that prevailed in British East Africa of World War I.  I frequently stay in a small, thatched-roof, canvas-walled cottage on the banks of the Malewa River, where shy water buck, demure bush buck, aggressive buffalo and plucky warthog cross, from which zebra and impala drink, around which monkeys scamper, and out of which hippopotamus surface like submarines.

Sitting on the raised veranda of the cottage, I've learned much:
  • Animals, contrary to the notion I had - derived from high school reading about mythical Native Americans moving soundlessly through the forest - can make a lot of awkward crashing noise as they move through scrub and in their interactions with rivers.
  • On the other hand, I am continually amazed at how animals can be grazing or passing virtually next to me, and I wouldn't have noticed them had I not serendipitously turned my head or looked up from my book.
  • Animals are surprisingly often equally oblivious of my presence.  Don't they smell me?  Hear me creaking in my chair or walking in my cottage?  Apparently, they're used to a fair amount of awkward crashing noise and, as for smelling me, either they've all got sinus infections or the smell doesn't carry like I'd thought it would.
That said, I have noticed a marked increase in my "animal sighting quotient" since I've startedHippo2.jpg coming on safari regularly.  Over time, I've learned to spy dik-dik "hiding" in plain sight by standing motionless; to distinguish the loping gait of the jackal threading through dense bush; to recognize the difference between the sound of wind rustling trees and animals snapping branches.

Some of this increased sensitivity is the result of greater exposure; but some of it is attributable to a slowing down - of my movements, of my gaze, of my breathing.  When I go on safari, I find I'm downshifting gears biologically as much as mentally: I'm relaxing my city metabolism as much as letting go of my urban worries.

So I felt a frisson of recognition finding two descriptions of this phenomenon by women more experienced in it than I.  Here's Elspeth Huxley on the "Dr. Doo-little" personality:  

The senior warden of the Tsavo National Park, David Sheldrick, and his wife, share their house at Voi with a great many animals and birds.  Both Sheldricks belong to that small company born with an instinctive understanding of their fellow creatures and with the patience which goes with these queer, unsought talents.  Such individuals are gentle, quiet in motion, slow spoken, unassuming, in a sense absorbent; they have a tranquil, indrawn quality.  People who are taught, jerky, spark-like and aggressive seldom draw from an animal the trust and feeling of security it needs.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 135.

Now Karen Blixen, on the adjustment necessary to appreciate wilderness:

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements.  The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it.  No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal.  The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it.
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, p. 15.

To be honest, "slow spoken, unassuming . . . . tranquil [and ]indrawn" and having an "aptitude [for] stillness" aren't accurate descriptions of me yet.  But in the pleasure I experience from the emphatically non-urban thrills of the bush, I recognize in me "the ache for slow beauty/to save you from your quick, quick life," and I hope this means, as Kapka Kassabova promises in her poem "The Door," that I've reached age enough to have stopped "knocking on a door without a house."  The fourth book will tell.

Note to self

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If ever I find myself graced with the good luck to enjoy an international bestselling memoir, let me not tarnish that work with a redundant, dated, cash-pandering follow up.  

Because, while in 1937, the observation that, "[i]n some respects, although not in all, the white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God" (Out of Africa, p. 358), might be thought-provoking, in 1960, the assertion that

The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages.  The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me on the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but the stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine.
(Shadows on the Grass, p. 382), is simply racist.

Because, if I'm going to pander for cash, let me do so whole-heartedly and write - not another allegedly quaintly charming book about my servants, about whom no one cared the first time - but about the lover to whom I referred with the exact mix of obliqueness and explicitness sufficient to pique a world-wide appetite lasting more than seventy years.

Someone should cash in on that appetite.  Why not me?

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