April 2010 Archives

Ready for the shovel

| No Comments
Somalia.jpgI wonder if anyone else has the experience of wanting to visit a place in exact proportion to the awfulness of its description.  I no sooner hear that a location is subject to such severe flooding that it can only be accessed on alternate Thursdays from October 1-12, and that, upon arrival, the locals will serve me a dish of fermented yak intestines, and I think: I have to go!  I can't hazard a guess as to how and when I drank from the tainted well from which this peculiar response springs, but I can attest to the pain it causes those who care about my well being.  For those of you thinking of describing your hells on earth to me, you'll do my mom a favor if you shade your account along the following lines: "Oh, Brazilian favelas?  They're lovely.  Quiet places where people sit outside on cleanly swept streets, drinking tap water and playing wholesome card games, like Go Fish."

Gerald Hanley's Warriors pushed my "must go to hell on earth" buttons.  Warriors is a memoir of Hanley's experience being posted in a variety of remote areas in Somalia during World War II.  The isolation was extreme, and he suffered many deprivations of food, intellectual stimulation, companionship, pay, etc.  His colleagues were committing suicide with a frequency that would have been impressive in a looney bin that'd run low on its meds.  So searing was his experience, that the first paragraph of his book asserts that,

it is in solitude that one can best understand that there is no solution, except to try and do as little harm as possible while we are here, that there is no losing and no winning, no real end to greed or lust, because the human appetite for novelty can only be fully satisfied by death.
(p. 7.)  Yet, despite his success in conveying viscerally the reality of his misery, I can't resist being charmed.  He makes the insanity he confronted sound so appealing:  

After the Somali troops under his command mutinied for the third time (they hadn't been paid in almost half a year), he gave an order that they could only mutiny on Fridays.  "They took it seriously," he reports (p. 13).  More on his troops:

Like white troops without cigarettes, they talked about ghee all day and night, but unlike white troops, held conferences about it, drew up statements, compiled measurements of the ghee they had not had, and must expect from me when the time of ghee came again, and some of them would come trembling with fury to me about the ghee, after having worked each other up over the camp-fire.
(p. 156-57.)  Then there was the case of the sleepwalking girl, staggering across the village in the dark hours, past curfew, because the elders had summoned her by means of magic.  "I gave [the matter] meticulous examination and was satisfied it was magic," says Hanley.  "I had to tell the askaris [the soldiers] to let this girl walk in her sleep whenever she was called, until the end of the curfew."  (p. 113.)    

Or the case of one of his colleagues who was trying to broker a peace between rival chiefs ready to send their tribes to war.  Beaten down by fruitless negotiations that rehearsed decades-old arguments that had been as useless then as they were now, and watching the chiefs depart to summon their warriors, the colleague said,

"'Remember that it is the elephant asleep in the long grass which defeats the greatest men."  He had no idea what he meant . . . and told me he had said it cynically, out of weariness, exhausted anger, but the chiefs stared at him, exchanged glances with each other, and nodded, went on nodding, and sat down, saying, "let us thrash this matter out again.  That is a splendid thing you have said."
(p. 154.)  And, speaking of saying splendid things, how about this "genealogy" insult hurled by Hanley's cook at his servant:  "'Son of a sick hyena, grandson of a noseless thief, descendant of vultures, father to be of a hermaphrodite baboon, filth and refuse untouchable, animal without religion' - and so on."  (p. 168.)

I love it!  I want to go!  Sadly, the Somalia of World War II doesn't exist anymore, and the one that currently occupies the horn of Africa is so explosive that breathing next to it is a hazard.  But never mind the impossibility: Hanley's hell is on my list of places to visit.

Why?  Undoubtedly, Hanley's storytelling skill and compelling authorial voice is part of the reason.  A good storyteller draws in the audience, even as he or she is saying, "Go away."  Go away, forsooth!  I want to know why I should, tell me more . . .

But even crap storytellers inspire my wanderlust: I've heard perfectly foul storytellers recount information about Senegal, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand - half the globe, really - and I still want to go.  Hanley would understand.  As he says towards the end of Warriors:

There is an enormous difference between the man who emerges from a safely ensconced segment of society, and the one who is flung into a world in which the shovel is waiting for him.  I recommend the latter to all as a far more exciting world to be thrown into.
(p. 201.)

(Map of Somalia from the UN website)  
Thomas_Cromwell.pngThe organization of information is a particular passion of mine.  How a society organizes its information determines its culture, its values and the means by which it exercises power.  

For example, as Walter J. Ong explains in his brilliant contribution to human thought, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, oral cultures must organize their information so that the important bits are retained and readily accessed in memory (p. 32-77).  Hence, oral cultures emphasize proverbs (as a distillation of wisdom), rhymed and rhythmic verse (easier to remember), and vivid, gory rhetoric that glorifies violence (makes a strong impression on the listener).  The results for culture, values and the exercise of power?  Epic poetry; devaluing critical thinking (too destabilizing to communal wisdom); superstition (a result of a critical thinking vacuum); and non-rational, superstition-, brute force- and violence-heavy means of exercising power.

So I was intrigued to see Joan Acocella explain, in her review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in The New Yorker, that the reign of Henry VIII was a period of radical reorganization of information in England.  Citing the historian G.R. Elton, Acocella writes that, under Thomas Cromwell (the protagonist of Wolf Hall), "English political policy, formerly at the whim of the nobles, became the work of specialized bureaucracies. England thereby progressed from the Middle Ages into the modern period."

The need for these bureaucracies arose, of course, because of the proliferation of information.  The greater the quantity of information that needs to be organized, the less likely that an individual mind can manage it with proverbs and epic poems (although both get people pretty far, pace Homer).  

And, sure enough, both these points - the limits of memory, and the proliferation of information - are emphasized in leit motifs in Wolf Hall.  In a sub-sub-plot, Thomas Cromwell tries to obtain a memory device built by Guido Camillo.  The thingamajig is a cabinet with drawers inside of drawers, described as

a theatre on the ancient Vitruvian plan.  But it is not to put on plays. . . . The owner of the theatre . . . stand[s] in the centre of it, and look[s] up.  Around you there is arrayed a system of human knowledge.  Like a library, but as if - can you imagine a library in which each book contains another book, and a smaller book inside that?
(p. 472.)  In a foreshadowing of the fate to befall prodigious memory in a literate future, Cromwell never obtains the device.  (Indeed, Camillo never finishes building it.)

Mantel also makes sly and amusing references to the information "avalanche" burying her sixteenth century characters:

[King Henry VIII] slips into his mouth an aniseed comfit, and snaps down on it.  "Already there are too many books in the world.  There are more every day.  One man cannot hope to read them all."
(p. 472)

When the last treason act was made, no one could circulate their words in a printed book or bill, because printed books were not thought of.  [Thomas Cromwell] feels a moment of jealousy towards the dead, to those who served kings in slower times than these; nowadays the products of some bought or poisoned brain can be disseminated through Europe in a month.
(p. 492)  In a month!?  Cromwell, pity us the Internet!

Historical periods of reorganization of information are particularly rich, since they invariably involve upheavals of culture and power as well.  In such periods, opportunity (as much as ruin) abounds.  Out of the churn, the long shot can win; the lowborn son-of-a-blacksmith can become the adviser to a King and second-most-important in the nation.  

While Cromwell has long been paired with the adjective "Machiavellian," Mantel suggests that his patron saint may not be Niccolo, but Melvil Dewey.  Mantel makes a persuasive case that Cromwell's greatest asset was not his cunning, propensity to manipulate others or hunger for power, but his awareness and understanding of how information was being reorganized and the ramifications of the new order - especially the increasing importance of the financial industry.  Here, for example, is the commoner Cromwell besting the noble Earl of Northumberland in a battle of wills over Anne Boleyn:

How can [Cromwell] explain to [Harry Percy, Earl of Northumberland]?  The world is not run from where he thinks.  Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.  The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun.  Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
(p. 378).  Whether Mantel is correct, historically, about Cromwell's gift, the lesson for us is clear.  We are currently living through a historic moment during which information is being radically reorganized.  Digitization of traditionally printed materials, along with decreases in the consumption of printed materials (which face massive competition from television, movies, Internet, and video games), are only two of the monumental shifts in information organization that are impacting our era.  Awareness and understanding of these changes are our keys to leveraging them for profit (personal, political, financial or otherwise).  Short of this consciousness, we'll have to fall back on being Machiavellian to succeed.

(Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Daily Mail)

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence

| No Comments
Gerald_Hanley_by_John_Huston.pngGerald Hanley's Warriors is an extraordinary book for many reasons, including the ambivalence it expresses about colonialism.  

Warriors was published in 1971.  To get a feel for the sentiments about colonialism in that era, consider a statement by Charles Miller, in his author's note to The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway across Kenya, also published in 1971:

[I]t is hardly possible not to have an opinion about the British Empire. . . . For the record, I think that the British Empire, with all its horrendous failings, was on balance a good thing.  I mourned its passing.
(p. viii.)  On the other side of the issue, here's James Beauttah, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, quoted in Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham's book, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya, published in 1966:

"Our society had [been] broken down [by colonialism] and the unity that we had in our old structure had been replaced by everyone fighting for himself, everyone on his own against all the troubles that had been brought to us.  There was a fundamental growing disunity that was our weakness. . . . [W]e had had so many wishes and ambitions awakened in us and then always the door slammed in our face.  This is worse than never having the ambitions wakened in the first place, far, far, worse."  
(p. 243.)  Now here's Hanley, distilling his observations about colonialism, gathered during his military service in Somalia during World War II:

[T]here is nothing fine or noble about savagery and illiteracy and superstition, no matter how splendid looking the warriors and the women.  After a good long dose of savagery it is interesting how much one has learned to prefer the gentle and the sophisticated.  Primitivism is a very much overrated way of life, and is merely pitiful in essence, no matter how fascinating the carvings and the masks and the quiet zoomorphic ravings on stone and wood, those endless circles in which the tribe has wandered and lost itself, waiting for the stranger to come with the message, even when it leads to the atom bomb.
. . . .
After the enormous orgy of torture and massacre in Europe and Asia [during WWII], I felt it was impossible for any white man to preach again, self-righteously, about goodness and peace, to any non-white man.  And that shame may have been the reason, bigger than African and Eastern restlessness, which caused the white man to pack his kit and go home after the second world war.  We must have all felt something of that shame, I think, and acted upon it without really knowing why.
. . . .
Yet ironically enough, while the conquered everywhere resented losing their country and their freedom, they nearly always took advantage of the policed peace forced upon them, nearly always relaxed, their swords left at home, yet they wanted their country back for themselves, while enjoying the "peace of the grave," as Pandit Nehru once called it, in which they now toiled under aliens. . . . [T]ime is always on the side of the original owners, if they can only survive.
(p. 73-74, 86.)  Later, Hanley quotes a Somali chief:

"We are lending you the labourers," he told me.  "But only because you are living with us here on the river, and because you have spoken well, and not because we recognise this new government which has replaced the Italians.  We do not want to be ruled by any strangers anymore.  They beat us with cannon, but ever inch of this land is ours.  Ours.  It can never belong to any strangers.  Men cannot live under strangers who have taken their lands.  Never.  If I had a spear and you had nothing and I came and took your house from you, and made you work in your own garden for me, you would not like that.  That is what they have done, these governments.  And it must come to an end now.  You can tell them that, for that is what we all feel."
Hanley was moved by the chief's speech.  "I agreed with every word he said," Hanley admits, concluding, "All these people everywhere would have to be let free, left alone, lectured to no more, or this war would be as useless as the last one."  (p. 91.)

Taken together, these excerpts from Hanley reveal a multi-faceted understanding of colonialism that glitters with accuracy.  Eschewing both the "on balance" opinion-drawing of Miller and the focused accusations of Beauttah, Hanley sees: (1) opportunities for a modern life, in contrast to traditional, pre-modern living, as being a good thing, despite the risks, (2) colonized peoples enjoying the benefits of those opportunities, despite resenting having these benefits and risks forced upon them, (3) white men as having no legitimacy to press those opportunities and risks upon non-whites, and (4) the inevitability of white men having to give up trying.  In essence, Hanley achieves the same understanding as Tayeb Salih, who - writing about colonialism in the Sudan in his masterpiece novel Season of Migration to the North - typically offered his insight with more poetry and concision: "[T]he [British] coming too was not the tragedy as we imagine, nor yet a blessing as they imagine."  (p. 60.)

The conflict inherent in this position - I cannot bestow benefits without costs too high; I cannot receive benefits without losses too great - is wrenching.    A mere glance at the current states of constant war in Somalia and the Sudan, and the abysmal governance in Kenya - and at the thousands of refugees, impoverished, starving and violence-traumatized people  in these countries - confirms that, had a resolution to this fundamental conflict been possible, people on both sides of the colonial equation would have been better off.

But to say that is a little like saying (I don't want to push the analogy too far) that, had Communism been able to work out its kinks, the world would have been a better place.  On balance, colonialism wasn't (and isn't) a blessing, any more than Communism was (and is) a blessing.  They are both systems that can be shown viable in abstract form, but the models can't be applied in practice.

The reason is that this basic conflict of being unable either to convey or receive benefits without costs and losses being unacceptable is a dynamic that pervasively poses obstacles to human engagement.  It's not merely the fly in the ointment of colonialism; it's a feature common to all aspects of the the human landscape, be they familial, professional, economic, sexual, creative, political or ecological.  Negotiating this conflict is an integral part of human engagement with "others" - be they our parents, our neighbors, our employers, our creditors, our lovers, our collaborators, our politicians or our environmental resources.

And negotiations notoriously end, neither in victory nor defeat, but in compromise: neither tragedies, nor blessings, they are simple enablers to living.  Hanley's wisdom comes in accepting this fact with ambivalence.

(Drawing of Gerald Hanley by John Huston, 1970s, from Warriors)    

A mellow (hued) Othello

| No Comments
John_Ortiz_and_Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_in_Othello.jpgMy New Yorker reading is irregular these days.  The magazine has gone downhill (in my opinion) and, since I've gone across the hill and around the bend in the river - to India or Kenya or wherever - the issues sometimes take months to find me.  (Yes, I do occasionally read it online, but I dislike The New Yorker's online edition.)  All of which is to say, I just got around to reading a Hilton Als' review from last October, and not withstanding its vintage, I'm going to weigh in and comment.

Als was reviewing Peter Sellars' production of Othello, starring John Ortiz as the title character and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago.  In a provocative move, Sellars' cast a Latino (Ortiz) as Othello, rather than casting a black actor (or even more traditionally, a white-actor-in-blackface).  Als didn't think much of this choice:

Shakespeare's music . . . is not distinct from his narratives or from the actors' behavior; we need to both see and hear his characters' intentions.  Which means, unavoidably, that Othello must be black.
Considering that, earlier in his review, Als quotes the Shakespeare scholar Daniel Vitkus saying that, in 1604, when Othello was written, "black skin color was understood . . . primarily with symbolic logic," Als has made a pretty dense pronouncement.

In fact, Othello wasn't black.  He was a Moor - a man originally of North African origin.  North Africans don't look like what Americans typically identify as "black."  ("Black" in this sense usually indicates a person from - or with ancestors from - sub-Saharan Africa.)  Often, the skin tone of North Africans is consistent with that of people from the Middle East or, say, Latin America.

Othello's many references to Othello's blackness were not, in their original intent, entirely literal.  As Vitkus suggests, the references are symbolic.  When Desdemona's father, Brabantio, complains about "an old black ram . . . tupping . . . [his] white ewe," "black" is not so much a description of Othello's skin, as it is of his soul.  Brabantio thinks Othello is evil.  

This Elizabethan use of "black" finds echoes in the way Americans used to classify people as "black" according to the "one drop" rule.  People who could pass for white (e.g., Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson fame, or Anatole Broyard) would have been labeled "black" under this definition.

To understand these mindsets of the past - the Elizabethan pseudo-spiritual, and the American pseudo-genetic - we must witness what actually happened: white people calling someone "black" who, to our eyes, isn't.  Sellars' casting gave audiences that experience.

If Als had his way, audiences would be limited to an interpretation of Othello that is narrow, ahistorical and unimaginative.  Als' critique self-righteously insists that the provincialism of current thinking is exclusively correct.  For all the harm Als' perspective does to Othello, reducing and diminishing the character, I can only think that Iago would approve.

(Image of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz from The New York Times)

The color of morality isn't Red

| No Comments
Guy_Burgess_1956_at_Black_Sea.jpgReading Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review of Chapman Pincher's book, Treachery: Betrayal, Blunders, and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage Against America and Great Britain (in The New York Review of Books), I experienced one of those synergies that make me look up from my reading and exclaim, "That's exactly right!"  The passage that provoked my experience quoted Isaiah Berlin, speaking of Guy Burgess, one of the "Cambridge Five," who spied on England for the USSR:  "Guy . . . [was] someone with no moral center to his life."
Knowing little-to-nothing about Guy Burgess (except for the fact that he's not Anthony Burgess, a point I had to reiterate several times in conversation recently), I was excited, not by the personal specifics, but by the general import of Berlin's remark.  Having lived in China for four and a half years, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe the way Communism erodes the moral fabric of a society and the moral integrity of its adherents.

In reflecting on this side-effect of Communism, I've concluded that its mechanism relates to the connection between morality and compassion, and to the further connection between compassion and individuals. 

Morality, in essence, is the intellectual expression of visceral compassion.  When we empathize with another person's pain, we condemn the cause of that hurt in moral terms: e.g., because we feel bad for fatherless children, we define as immoral the behavior of deadbeat dads who shirk their parental duties to their children.

The human capacity for compassion, however, is limited.  Whether by hard-wiring or otherwise, we relate best to other individuals.  Our empathy doesn't spring into its fullest expression until we can lavish it on another individual.  Our moral outrage at deadbeat dads is never stronger than when the neglected children are known and beloved by us.

The fundamental flaw of Communism is its insistence on cultivating compassion for the group, in preference to the individual.  Human beings do this poorly at best.  (The group with which most of us identify most strongly is our family, and even that instance of empathizing with a group tends to pale beside our sympathy for individuals within the family.)  Throw in the typical Communist government modus operandi of instigating betrayal of one's nearest and dearest - children informing on parents, siblings turned against one another, etc. - and Communism produces an individual whose compassionate capacities are well and truly broken.

And without a visceral compassion response in working order, moral reasoning cannot operate properly.

Milan Kundera has repeatedly documented this breakdown as it occurred in (then) Czechoslovakia (viz. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being).  Kundera's example is significant because it suggests that the problem is with Communism, and not China's flavor of Communism.  Isaiah Berlin's observation about Guy Burgess resonated with me because it provides additional support: a man with no moral center would, of course, match with a system that eviscerates the moral backbone of society and person.

I did not match with such a system.  To illustrate just how profoundly I was at odds with Chinese Communism, I'll admit that, upon learning that Guy Burgess defected to the USSR in 1951 and died there, I felt - traitor that he was - pity.

(Image of Guy Burgess sunbathing at the Black Sea in 1956 from Times Online
Henry_VIII_and_Ann_Bolyn.jpgWhen I admitted in a prior blog post that I felt a teeny-bit let down at the end of Wolf Hall because of the novel's dialogue, I was not telling - I must confess - the whole story.  In fact, the plotting also didn't satisfy, but I wanted to address that issue in a separate post because my plot-wise complaints are not directed at Hilary Mantel.

They are directed at history.

History - like individual lives - doesn't unfold in a neat, plot-ready chunks that move from initial provocation, to thickening, to climax, to smug resolution.  While the role of the historical novelist is to shape history, so that the reader can partake in some semblance of the traditional joys of a plotted tale, history (and I feel confident that no one has made this observation before) isn't silly putty: you can't stretch it around however you like.  If the escapades of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII don't fit neatly into the traditional three act structure of Western plots, then your historical novel isn't going to have a traditional three act plot.

Hilary Mantel surely excelled herself with her plotting of material.  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, points out that the events she covers, including her choice of ending Wolf Hall in the wake of Thomas More's execution, track Shakespeare's treatment of the same topic.  Mantel has probably received shabbier compliments.

But to my taste - and I admit, I harbor a bias in favor of strong plotting - Wolf Hall's plot didn't build enough momentum to carry me through the 650 pages.  

One problem was that it was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that will presumably be fleshed out in Mantel's upcoming sequel - chief among them being the fates of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a secret wife and daughter.  

Another drawback was that Wolf Hall was weighed down by numerous sub-plots that were resolved within the text, but didn't seem to advance the overall plot.  The in-depth treatment of the Holy Maid, for example, eats up twenty pages, but what do we get?  Additional insight into the character of Thomas Cromwell; a foretaste of the trial awaiting Thomas More; an inkling of what the Inquisition in England looked like; a sense of the insecurity Henry VIII felt about his legitimacy; but how do any of these points advance the plot?  Four hundred and eighty-four pages into the book, I was expecting the plot to be tightening, not loosening its belt and expanding.

But perhaps my expectations are unwarranted.  My guess is that Hilary Mantel covered the Holy Maid episode because it happened.  Because it's history.  And history (to say nothing of Mantel) doesn't give a damn about my plot expectations.

Reading Wolf Hall gave me a new appreciation for the challenges of writing a historical novel, as well as the realization that I am not - contrary to past (unintended) mis-statements - currently writing a historical novel.  The Celebration Husband, my soon-to-be-completed-in-draft-form fourth novel, which is set in East Africa during WWI, is a novel that takes place in the past; it's not a historical novel.  The events described didn't actually happen.  

For the record, the events described in The Celebration Husband conform to a traditional Western plot.  I (not surprisingly) do give a damn about my plot expectations, and the actual historical facts were too scattershot to stick with.  This is why I'm a fiction author: I like silly putty.

(Image of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from The Mirror)    

With apologies to Hilary Mantel

| No Comments
Hilary_Mantel.jpgRaising criticisms, however loving or justified, about monumental achievements is embarrassing.  About six months ago, for example, I asked a friend what she thought of Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall.  I'd just bought the book, but I hadn't yet read it.  "It's me," said my friend, feeling apparently that she had to apologize for not raving passionately about it.  "I'm Tudor-ed out."

Having just finished the novel (no, it didn't take me six months to read; it took me six months to get around to reading it), I feel - like my friend - a teeny bit let down.  And like my friend, I feel like I have to apologize.  Wolf Hall is stunning; it dominated my life for the 48 hours it took me to read it.  The novel every bit earns the adjective "consuming."  Hilary Mantel's writing is so readable, and her organization of this massive tale so masterful, that any non-laudatory comment about Wolf Hall seems ungrateful.  But - call me ungrateful - I was mildly unsatisfied at its end.  If the problem is me, though, it's not because I'm Tudor-ed out.  Like all proper Americans, I lack formal education in history.

One reason for the let-down is undoubtedly the build up.  Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize in 2009.  In The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Benfey calls it "dazzling," while Janet Maslin describes the "book's main characters . . . [as] scorchingly well rendered."  Stephen Greenblatt, writing in The New York Review of Books, sums up Wolf Hall as "a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel."

But my sense of let-down wasn't merely a function of expectations raised to unfairly vertiginous heights.  Wolf Hall let me down in respect of one reasonable expectation that Stephen Greenblatt elucidates in his NYRB review:

The historical novel . . . . offers the dream of full access, access to what went on behind closed doors, off the record, in private, when no one was listening or recording.  The great realizations of this dream . . . provide a powerful hallucination of presence, the vivid sensation of lived life.  They set the dead in motion and make them speak.
"Historical novels," Greenblatt adds, "generate a sense in the reader best summed up by exclamations like 'Yes, this is the way it must have been.'"

My sense of let-down with Wolf Hall goes exactly to Greenblatt's point: I kept thinking, It couldn't have been this way.

Yes, yes, I have already admitted that I have no formal history education.  How the hell would I know what it must have been like?  A valid objection, I agree.  But the reason I kept getting jolted out of my suspension of disbelief was the dialogue.  Without exception, the dialogue was relentlessly witty.  Too often, dialogue seemed to be either a laugh, a set-up to a laugh, or a set-up to a set-up.  For example, here is Thomas Cromwell speaking to his boss, Cardinal Wolsey:

The servants efface themselves, melting away towards the door.  "What else would you like?" the cardinal says.
"The sun to come out?"
"So late?  You tax my powers."
"Dawn would do."
The cardinal inclines his head to the servants.  "I shall see to this request myself," he says gravely; and gravely they murmur, and withdraw.
(p. 19.)  Here, in another example, is Cromwell speaking with his wife, Liz:

"You're sweeter to look at than the cardinal," he says.
"That's the smallest compliment a woman ever received."
"And I've been working on it all the way from Yorkshire."
(p. 35.)  The only people who so consistently talk that way are in sit-coms.  And even I know that they didn't have sit-coms in the court of Henry VIII.

And, at the risk of appearing really ungrateful, let me elaborate on my complaint by saying, the wit was clearly that of Hilary Mantel; hers is an admirable wit - one that entertains and enchants - but I often felt that the characters were deprived of individual voices.  Is that his sister Kat, his wife Anne or his sister-in-law Johane quipping?  Is that his nephew Richard, his clerk Rafe or his servant Christopher - or for that matter Kat, Anne or Johane - wise-cracking?  To my ear, they all possess the same interchangeable humor.  For instance:

"You'll make the magistrates' bench for sure . . . with your close study of the difference between a corpse and my brother."  (Kat)

"Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?" (Liz)
The dialogue is, in fact, tremendously fun to read, and the moments were many when I was smiling or even laughing out loud.  ("Tweet tweet," to those of you who have read the book, left me guffawing.)  

Nonetheless, just as historical characters depicted in movies are always better looking than they'd been in life, the dialogue in Wolf Hall didn't strike me as 16th century speech "the way it must have been.'"  Hilary Mantel may have "set the dead in motion and ma[d]e them speak," but she made them speak like the hippest, sexiest, funniest, most modern, Platonic ideal versions of themselves.

And for that, I'm just a little bit sorry.

(Image of Hilary Mantel from The New York Times)

The man hasn't been to Africa

| No Comments
"Lines Written in Early Spring" is a poem that's meant to make the reader ponder human depravity.  Sitting in a grove, the poet notices

Through the primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 't is my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure: -
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
And, because the poet is "[i]n that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts/Bring sad thoughts to the mind," he concludes, on the basis of all this natural hedonism - of air-loving flowers and pleasure-hopping birds

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
To which I can only reply:  Will, you got it all wrong.  

Like anyone living in Kenya, I am absolutely swamped by nature, and none of it is chirpy hoppy happy.  The acacia trees do not give me the impression that they enjoy the air they breathe; they have long, spiky thorns that embed themselves in the soles of my Crocs and poke through to pain my feet.  The maribou storks do not seem to thrill with pleasure at every motion; they're carrion birds on the look-out for something dead to eat.  On safari with my mother, we saw the carcass of a camel that had been killed by a lion: it was missing a hind leg and its face was being eaten by vultures.

Well, one might sigh, what can you expect from the Romantics?  The poetry is lovely, but their politics could never be taken seriously.  

But the irony is that reflecting on nature can reveal some very romantic notions about humanity.  What lion has done charitable deeds?  What maribou stork has made a heroic sacrifice?  What acacia tree has died for love?  

When the Romantics argued that we should be more like nature, they misperceived nature: nature is very practical.  What is romantic about human nature is precisely what distinguishes us from the rest of nature: our unique capacity to be motivated by ideas, instead of needs.

Every time we stand up for justice, strive for self-improvement or create something because it's beautiful, we're acting romantically.  (So, of course, were British religious inquisitors who burned heretics at the stake, and Red Guards kicking elderly "intellectuals" in the stomach: romantics all.)  And, despite the invariable excesses of this modus operandi, the highest of human achievements have resulted from acting on ideas.

That said, "what man has made of man" is nothing to be proud of.  Given our potential, humans writ large are obviously more depraved than is tolerable.  But if I were sitting in a grove in early spring, what I'd reflect is that it could be so much worse.

(Benjamin Robert Haydon's portrait of William Wordsworth from The Telegraph)

Show and tell

| No Comments
The_spectacular_PG_Wodehouse.jpgAnyone who takes a writing creative class these days is admonished to "show, don't tell," and the prescription has escaped the classroom and entered the market.  An industry professional reviewing an early draft of my current novel, The Celebration Husband, noted that I was "telling" more than "showing."

But with all respect accorded to the industry professional, "show, don't tell" is more of an ideology than a precept of good writing.  While in certain instances - particularly the presentation of exposition and other background material, the revelation of character traits, or an action scene - "showing" can be more effective than "telling," the foregoing is not absolutely true.

For instance, P.G. Wodehouse, one of the world's best selling authors, relies heavily on "telling" in all three instances.  In Right Ho, Jeeves, after sighing about the "dashed difficult problem" of how to begin a story, Wodehouse commences with a recitation of Bertie Wooster's trip to Cannes with his Aunt Deliah and Cousin Angela - a classic instance of "telling" background details.  

Nor does Wodehouse wait to let the reader figure out his characters.  Thoughout the Jeeves novels, Wooster is telling you what they're like.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Wooster explains away readers' questions about the presence of his friend, Chuffy, on the pier late at night by telling us that Chuffy is the kind of guy who stands beneath his beloved's window and, if she's on a yacht (as she is), well, then he'll go stand on the pier.  No need for Chuffy to "show" us this side of himself.    

Wodehouse even makes masterful use of the "telling" technique for action scenes.  In Thank You, Jeeves, Jeeves narrates a brawl between two small boys that draws their parents in and eventually results in the breaking off a real-estate deal.  Many other writers would have shown such a juicy squabble, but Wodehouse opts to alternate between showing and telling.  

Wodehouse's style of alternating between showing and telling owes something to drawing room and musical comedies.  In Auntie Mame, for example, the climactic horse race is depicted from the perspective of the crowd watching the race - told, not shown.  Similarly, in Pygmalion, the culminating garden party, where Henry Higgins presents Eliza Doolittle to great acclaim and triumph, happens offstage - we hear the characters talk about it.  

Of course, some of these theatrical choices were pragmatic.  Running a horse race in a theater is obviously a non-starter.  Staging a garden party requires many actors and increases costs.  

But an underlying wisdom supports these choices as well.  "Showing" leaves less room for the imagination than "telling."  When - in the movie of Auntie Mame - we watch the horse race (not the spectators), we see how it happened; in the musical, we imagine other possibilities.  The principle is no less applicable with books.  When Jeeves narrates Gussie Finknottle's attempts - and failure - to reach a fancy dress ball in Right Ho, Jeeves, we imagine Gussie's comic plight; but when we see Gussie give a speech to a boy's school while drunk, we need not imagine anything: the scene is completely detailed.   

Alternating between showing and telling invites the audience to engage its imagination and thereby deepens the audience member's experience of the story.  Engaging the imagination encourages the suspension of disbelief and the immersion in the world the author has created.  Audience members thus become more active participants in the story, as contrasted with their more passive counterparts being shown everything (as, for example, in a James Bond movie).

Active readers are desirable readers.  Their imaginations engaged, they are unlikely to recommend that writer adhere mindlessly to an ideological motto.

(Image of P.G. Wodehouse from The Guardian)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2010 is the previous archive.

May 2010 is the next archive.



OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04