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In The Celebration Husband
, my fourth novel, which I'm currently writing, the protagonist, Tanya, runs intelligence missions for the British irregular forces fighting the Germans in East Africa during World War I. Tanya's contribution to the war effort is based on something that Karen Blixen actually did: she led a caravan of four ox wagons to supply Lord Delamere's men (with whom her husband was volunteering).
Like Karen Blixen, Tanya begins her journey at Kijabe, a railway station on the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley in Kenya. From Kijabe, Tanya travels down the escarpment and across the floor of the Rift Valley to the Ewaso Nyiro River in Masailand. Then she moves south along the river until she reaches the tributary called the Narosera River. She follows the Narosera River until she finds
where Lord Delamere is camped. (As a matter
of historical fact, Lord Delamere was recruiting Masai scouts in the area of the Narosera River after WWI broke out in August 1914.)
To write plausible descriptions of Tanya's journey, I made the trip myself, first to Kijabe (top picture) and the railway station currently there (second picture). (The existing station was established in 1947 and is higher on the escarpment than the original station where Karen Blixen worked; all that remains of that spot is a grassed over mound of cement.)
Then I traveled (by car, not ox wagon) across the floor of the Rift Valley until I reached the Ewaso Nyiro River, whereupon I bumped down a dirt "road" for two hours before I reached
Narosera Town, on the banks of the Narosera River. Neither the "road" nor the Town were on the map, so without my Masai guide, Jonas Olsarara (bottom picture), I never would have found either. (Jonas' critical contribution to this research, including his local and linguistic knowledge, made me wonder how Karen Blixen crossed Masailand in 1914 without a Masai-speaking guide; she makes no mention of such a person on her supply mission and claims that her crew consisted of Somalis and Kikuyus.)
Along the road, we passed a seasonal "rhino swimming pool" (third picture), filled with water from unseasonal rains. And, despite the inconvenience and stress of the drive (that the wheels remained unpunctured and the chassis uncracked was miraculous), the richness of the landscape (fourth picture) would have made the trip worthwhile, even if it hadn't been necessary reconnaissance for my book.
However much I was enriched by the sensory wealth along the road, the local Masai population knew that such riches are of limited exchange value in a modern market: they were walking, not driving. I ended up giving rides to a number of them and was shocked to learn that they'd never seen - much less been in the car with - a woman driver before. This gorgeous young girl (left) had never had her picture taken previously, either. (This shot was the fifth attempt; on the previous four, she'd squeezed her eyes shut when the camera shutter clicked.)
Curious, I asked Jonas if he'd ever been in a car with a woman driver before: "No," was his answer. Jonas works in a lodge and makes a good
enough income to pay the school fees of his four brothers and sisters; he has also been in many types of cars in many situations, including cross country trips and game drives. Nonetheless, women drivers (though common in Nairobi) were an anomaly to him. He graciously opined that, based on my example, he found women drivers to be excellent.
He also hazarded that I was the first mzungu (white) woman to visit Narosera and seemed tickled by the idea that he had contributed to the introduction of this rare species to the ecosystem. Knowing that, 95 years before me, Karen Blixen had succeeded in locating Lord Delamere in this vicinity, I assured him that I couldn't be. "Well," he compromised, "the first mzungu woman who came by herself just to see the river."
He graciously declined to express any opinion about the sanity of such a woman.
I haven't read any of Paul Auster's novels. But after reading Clancy Martin's review
in The New York Times Book
review, I added Invisible
to my list of "books I want to read." I was particularly impressed by praise like,
- "'It is the finest novel Paul Auster has ever written,'" and
- "The prose is contemporary American writing at its best: crisp, elegant,
brisk. It has the illusion of effortlessness that comes only with
fierce discipline. As often happens when you are in the hands of a
master, you read the next sentence almost before you are finished with
the previous one."
Such effulgence seems to have annoyed James Wood, The New Yorker
's book reviewer. In his review
, he complains, "[Auster's] pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy
and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up
like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue." In his vehemence, Wood targets not merely Auster, but also the competitor reviewers who might challenge Wood's assessment, which covers not merely Invisible
, but Auster's entire career. Wood has written a hit piece on Paul Auster.
Wood is, of course, entitled to write whatever he wants, and his opinions about authors are no less informative - indeed, they're undoubtedly a good deal more informed - than most you'd read in a general-interest publication. But the energy and apparent meanness with which Wood trashes Auster's oeuvre is thought-provoking.
Wood begins his review by parodying Auster's novels, a technique that Wood himself describes as "unfair." (He justifies himself by qualifying that his unfairness is "diligently so," as if careful, systematic unfairness is better than the sloppy, random sort.)
Wood then works very hard to characterize apparent strengths in Auster's writing (e.g.
, readable prose) as weaknesses:
One reads Auster's novels very fast, because they are lucidly written,
because the grammar of the prose is the grammar of the most familiar
realism (the kind that is, in fact, comfortingly artificial), and
because the plots, full of sneaky turns and surprises and violent
irruptions, have what the Times once called "all the suspense
and pace of a bestselling thriller." There are no semantic obstacles,
lexical difficulties, or syntactical challenges. The books fairly hum
If you don't understand that Wood means this description as a negative criticism, he insists in summation, "Although there are things to admire in Auster's fiction, the prose is never one of them." (Compare what Clancy Martin says about Auster's prose: "You want to reread Invisible
because it moves quickly, easily,
somehow sinuously, and you worry that there were good parts that you
read right past, insights that you missed. . . . The
novel could be read shallowly, because it is such a pleasure to read.")
Wood also glosses over other reported strengths in Invisible
with toss-off parethentical praise: "The second section of Walker's narrative contains a scandalous (and
quite touching) account of an incestuous affair that Walker carried on
with his sister." (Clancy Martin describes the passage this way: "It's five or 10 exceptionally beautiful, disturbing pages, and it [the incest] is
occasioned by their mourning the loss of a long-dead younger brother.")
The point of my analysis is not the unremarkable fact that critics can disagree about a book, but the unusual emphasis that Wood seems to place on dismissing Auster, otherwise recognized as a major American writer. Indeed, far from disagreeing, Wood and Martin are united in their conclusion that some of Auster's preceding novels are tiresome. Wood diagnoses Auster's fundamental problem (somewhat opaquely) as follows:
What is problematic about these books is not their postmodern
skepticism about the stability of the narrative, which is
standard-issue fare, but the gravity and the emotional logic that
Auster tries to extract from the "realist" side of his stories. Auster
is always at his most solemn at those moments in his books which are
least plausible and most ragingly unaffecting.
Martin (somewhat more accessibly) explains: Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions
rather than persuasions. They declare themselves; they hound the next
revelation. Because nothing is persuasively assembled, the inevitable
postmodern disassembly leaves one largely untouched. (The disassembly
is also grindingly explicit, spelled out in billboard-size type.)
Presence fails to turn into significant absence, because presence was
not present enough.
I was not a fan of Auster's last few books. Invisible is his 15th
novel, and I was afraid that this would be, as I felt with his recent
work, another instance of Auster playing Auster - a kind of arch
exercise in the clever but cloying metaphysics of textual irony, a
cat-and-mouse toying with the fiction and the reader . . . . One leaves the text and feels that one has been left with
nothing. The irony vacuums out the content and, with it, our interest.
Nonetheless, Martin is open to the possibility that Auster's new book is a worthwhile departure from "another instance of Auster playing Auster," but Wood is not. And Wood's pinched and pitched closure is not entirely understandable from the face of his review.
Interestingly, what Invisible
prompts in Martin is the observation that, "Love is always invisible, and in our world of hard-nosed
materialists . . . our highest good is
something we can never really see or grab hold of . . . . What we take as the real world is not the world that
matters most to us: the substance of our lives takes place in an
Perhaps Martin is too optimistic in failing to mention that, jealousy, like love, is also invisible, and that getting a grip on our least attractive aspects is at least as difficult, if not more so, as grabbing hold of our "highest good." That substance of our lives is never solely positive . . . and rightly so.
(Photo from The Age
In 2000, I went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and saw a show called, "Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera
." The show charted the use of photography by fourteen artists at the turn of the twentieth century. Looking back on descriptions of the show, I gather that the artists on exhibit made various uses of photographs; but what I remember, what particularly impressed me, was the idea that a core of two or three images or concepts could and did nourish these (or some of these) artists through their entire careers. Degas' horses and ballerinas, Gaugin's Tahitian women and (although they weren't in the show) John Singer Sargent's society ladies, James Rosenquist's spaghetti
and Philip Guston's cartoon Klansmen, light bulbs and shoe souls all seem to be examples of this phenomenon.
For the past nine years I've been thinking about that argument and wondering: are two or three concepts really enough for a lifetime?
My musings received more fodder when I read the following passage in Colm Toíbín's The Master
[Henry James] did not realize then and did not, in fact, grasp for many years how these few weeks in North Conway - the endlessly conversing group of them gathered under the rustling pines - would be enough for him, would be in, in effect, all he needed to know in his life. In all his years as a writer he was to draw on the scenes he lived and witnessed at that time, the two ambitious, patrician New Englanders [Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Gray], already alert to the eminence which awaited them, and the American girls, led by Minny [Temple], fresh and open to life, so inquisitive, so imbued with a boundless curiosity and charm and intelligence.
Of course, novelists often rework familiar territory. Marilyn Robinson's Home
is a retelling from another perspective of her novel Gilead
. Philip Roth's The Plot Against America
gives us a Jewish family from Newark recognizable from his other novels. Joyce Carol Oates fictionalizes lurid news stories. What's Milan Kundera without Communism or Jane Austin without Britain's class system?
Still, despite the evidence, I'm not convinced. Two or three ideas seems like fuel for a decade, not a lifetime . . . unless you're defended or restricted from, or uninterested in, the wider world.
Granted, most adults are not continually open to world throughout their lives. As Toíbín's Henry James explains in The Master
, referring to Isabel Archer,
decisions [about] matters of duty and resignation were often more easily made than . . . . "leaps in the dark. Making such leaps requires us to be brave and determined, but doing so also may freeze any other possibilities. It is easier to renounce bravery rather than to be brave over and over. . . . The will and never needed for such actions do not come to us often."
The "two or three concepts for a lifetime" theory strikes me as a byproduct of stasis, laziness, oppression or other barriers to making "leaps in the dark," those terrifying risks that reinvigorate one's supply of motivating ideas.
On the other hand, maybe "two or three concepts" represents an intrinsic limit in human capacities, a reflection of the human penchant for imposing familiar, convenient and appealing constructs on the external world - the likelihood that, having leaped into the dark, you'll find there a variation of what you thought you were leaving behind.
For myself, if two or three concepts are animating my work, I'm not seeing them yet. Certainly, I could identify common themes for my novels, but I think doing so would be a process of post-hoc rationalization. If I've had my North Conway experience - if I've stumbled upon the well to which I will return year after year, novel after novel - I don't know it.
Perhaps I haven't found or can't recognize my life-long subjects yet. Or potentially I'm outside the "two or three concepts" paradigm. Or, maybe, rather than leaping in the dark, I'm free-falling.
(James Rosenquist's F111 from Aasavina
If Jeffrey Toobin correctly recounts the facts in his recent New Yorker
article about Roman Polanski, then the public condemnation of Polanski's A-list supporters (who include Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Debra Winger and Bernard-Henri Levy) is disturbingly misguided.
In her blog
for The Nation
, Katha Pollitt leads the condemnation team with a rallying question: "If a rapist escapes justice for long enough, should the world hand him a get-out-of-jail-free card?" She concludes:
It's enraging that literary superstars who go on and on about human dignity, and human rights, and even women's rights (at least when the women are Muslim) either don't see what Polanski did as rape, or don't care, because he is, after all, Polanski - an artist like themselves.
But if Toobin's reporting is right, then Pollitt's analysis is wrong. She goes awry in her first question. Polanski, according to Toobin, did not escape justice and did not (and cannot) get out of jail free. Rather, Polanski was incarcerated for about a month-and-a-half, during which he was psychologically examined. The psychological report recommended that any further punishment should be limited to probation.
At the outset, Judge Rittenband had assured Polanski's attorneys that the psychological examination would serve as Polanski's punishment (despite Polanski's lawyer's objection that such a use was an improper deployment of psychological testing). After Polanski's release, however, Rittenband toyed with the idea of sending Polanski back to prison for another month-and-a-half and then deporting him - a punishment that Rittenband (as a state judge) had no authority to impose (deportation being the jurisdiction of the federal government).
Polanski therefore chose to flee - not from the imposition of punishment in accordance with the American criminal justice system - but from the fickle and illegal abuse of judicial power. For a man who'd shown resilience in the face of blows of fate unseen since Greek tragedy - including surviving Hitler, his mother's death in Aushwitz, and the murder of his wife and child by the Manson gang - a reluctance to submit to the corrupt whims of a civil servant strikes me as understandable.
Thus, Pollitt's opening question should have been: "If a rapist is punished much more leniently than satisfies modern sensibilities, and further takes matters into his own hands when his punisher proves to be corrupt, is extradition more than thirty years later, with the aim of imposing a stricter sentence, consistent with our system of justice?"
The answer is no.
Pollitt is simply incorrect that "literary superstars" and other Polanski supporters don't see what happened as rape. Without question, Polanski raped a child and caused her tremendous pain, both physical and emotional.
Pollitt is similarly wrong when she complains that Polanski's supporters "don't care" that he raped a girl because he's an artist. Polanski's supporters do care that he raped a girl (and the fact that he's an artist is irrelevant to his status as a rapist); but they also care that, in a Judeo-Christian system of ethics, even rapists (and even artist-rapists) get to serve their time and move on: it's called redemption - or paying one's debt to society - and it's the bedrock of the Western system of justice.
Pollitt's disregard of the basic ethics of Western justice seems to result from the reflexiveness and unexamined quality of her response. To the extent that Pollitt's knee-jerk objection has merit, it's that Polanski was allowed to repay his debt to society at unfairly favorable interest rates. But public mores about sentencing in rape cases have changed radically in the last thirty years. And, while I agree that Polanski's behavior merited more strenuous legal repercussions, the fact that we in 2009 don't accept as sufficient Polanski's punishment in 1978 doesn't give us license (morally or legally) for a "do over" - which is as it should be.
"Do overs" are dirty tricks, the kind of stunts that mobs demand, and that authorities provide when they cowardly capitulate to a tyrannical public. Western systems of justice, and the American system in particular, are rightly and wisely designed to resist the vagaries of popular feeling and to protect those most likely to be its targets, no matter how unsavory - e.g.
, child rapists.
This policy is good, not just for the health of a nation's system of justice, but also for its literature. Katha Pollitt would do well to mark Henry James' concern for his friend Edmund Gosse, who was swept along in the flotsam of the public's outrage about Oscar Wilde's sodomy:
Henry studied Gosse and paid attention to his tone. Suddenly, his old friend had become a rabid supporter of the stamping out of indecency. He wished there were someone French in the room to calm Gosse down, his friend having joined forces, apparently, with the English public in one of their moments of self-righteousness. He wanted to warn him that this would not help his prose style.
Colm Toíbín, The Master
If Katha Pollitt's writing about Polanski is any example, she can't afford any further diminishment in the quality of her prose.
(Photo from The Guardian
Although I previously characterized Lorrie Moore's Self-Help
as a "wasteland of ideas
," in fact one of the stories contains one idea. The story is "Go Like This," and the idea is the disturbing concept of "aesthetic suicide" (p. 73).
The story's protagonist, Liz, has breast cancer that has spread. Although her doctor advises her that "women have survived much greater damage than you have suffered, much worse odds, worse pain than this" (p. 68), Liz decides to kill herself on Bastille Day with an overdose of Seconal. "[S]uicide [is] the most rational and humane alternative to my cancer, an act not so much of self-sacrifice as of beauty, of sparing" (p. 71), she tells her friends.
Some of her friends protest, but her husband, Elliot - who won't sleep with her after her mastectomies, despite her continuing sexual desire for him - thinks that "[suicide] will possibly be the most creative act Liz has ever accomplished," and adds, "I think it is beautiful she is doing this for me" (p. 73).
Elliot's attitude is a pity because his stance deprives the story of an opportunity to explore seriously the idea it raises. Despite the fact that luminaries like Martha Gellhorn
have agreed with Liz's assertion that "intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to the stupid lingering of a graceless death" (p. 72), "Go Like This" reduces Liz's thinking to a pathetic rationalization. With her husband rebuffing her sexual desires, masturbating after she goes to sleep and expressing relief and gratitude for her exit strategy, Liz's suicide cannot be "the culmination of a life philosophy, the triumph of the artist over the mortal, physical world" (p. 72-73); rather, it is a demoralized accession to her husband's will.
In "Go Like This," Moore does more than "focus on the visceral
." Whether consciously or not, she seems to cast aspersions on the cerebral. Not content to ignore ideas completely, in "Go Like This," Moore suggests that ideas - "big ideas," "existential" ideas ("It's Hemingway" (p. 69)) - are devices for self-deceit.
Of course, Moore's suspicion of "big ideas," and her insistence on the primacy of the visceral, emotional and irrational in women's lives, is itself a big idea - and not a new one: it's the idea that when women try to think, they get themselves into a muddle.
Far from condemning this message as sexist, Moore's stories seem to argue that this banishment of women to the Irrationality Reserve is true-to-life and aesthetically-liberating. My own perspective is that this argument is no less deceptive than Liz's contorted rationalizing and no less of an amputation than Liz's mastectomies.
An aesthetic without ideas is not "female": it's amoral. And glorifying such an approach as essentially female isn't "women's art": it's aesthetic suicide.
(Image of barbituates from Healthmad.com
Recently, referring to one of my manuscripts, a publisher made a comment that can be summed up in this joke: "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "The audience." "The audience who?"
Apparently, the answer wasn't manifest on the face of my manuscript.
The question is cogent. Stories are obviously told differently depending on the audience. (I recall, for example, an excruciating presentation I gave at a law firm during which I wildly - and inexcusably, since I'd been working at the place for four years - misjudged my audience's ability to exercise their imaginations or laugh. Dead silence. Vacant stares. Awkward shifting in chairs.)
Equally important, stories are sold differently depending on the audience. And if one endeavors, as I do, to be a published author, one needs to care about how a book might be marketed, even if this job isn't rightly the author's (and, indeed, excessive interference on this end of the operations might be considered to be lunatic behavior).
Nonetheless, despite all the wisdom I recognize in the "whose the audience?" query, I can't seem to get too enthused about it during the writing process. When I think of who might read my work, I think "everybody," and probe the answer no further.
This approach isn't (merely) laziness on my part. I really do see myself as writing stories for everyone - for men and women, the generalist and the specialist, for those who hail from the developed world, and for those who are slogging through the developed. (From the sales perspective, of course, my self-image is sub-optimal because not "everybody" buys books: women buy books, and more specifically, middle- and upper-class women, mostly from developed countries.)
But my approach is also informed by a simple pragmatism: if I thought too much about what other people would think of what I was writing, I wouldn't be doing my best work - if I'd be doing any work at all. Self-consciousness is a notorious drag on creative output. Writing to her Aunt Bess in April 1914, Karen Blixen remarked, "I believe that it would be impossible to write if one gave consideration to who is going to read one's work . . . ." (Letters from Africa, p. 5.)
Is it a coincidence that it took Karen Blixen twenty years from that toss-off comment to sell a book?