Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford

During the time that had ensued between January and that month of March, it had been proved to Katharine Howard how well Throckmorton, the spy, voiced the men folk of their day. He had left her alone, but she seemed to feel his presence in all the air. He passed her in corridors, and she knew from his very silence that he was carrying on a fumbling game with her uncle Norfolk, and with Gardiner of Winchester. He had not induced her to play his game--but he seemed to have made her see that every man else in the world was playing a game like his. It was not, precisely, any more a world of black and white that she saw, but a world of men who did one thing in order that something very different might happen a long time afterwards.

Ford Madox Ford is always good for a misleading title, so it may surprise no one that in The Fifth Queen Kataerine Howard, who will succeed Anne of Cleves as the wife of Henry VIII, never quite makes it to the throne in this, the first in Ford's trilogy. Instead it depicts something not unlike the beginning of the historical Katharine's relationship with Henry. It is true that she was first a lady-in-waiting in the King's court, but in the service of Queen Anne, not the King's daughter, Mary, and it isn't likely to be true that Henry chanced upon her on the palace grounds riding a mule and, dazzled by her beauty and wit, impressed her into that service. Nor was the historical Katharine a virulent Catholic bitterly opposed to Thomas Cromwell, the Protestant standard-bearer and Lord of the Privy Seal:

The face of a queen looked down just above his head with her eyes wide open as if she were amazed, thrusting her head from a cloud.

'Why, I have outlived three queens,' he said to himself, and his round face resignedly despised his world and his times. He had forgotten what anxiety felt like because the world was so people with blunderers and timid fools full of hatred.

Cromwell sees in Katharine an opportunity to plant a spy in the Catholic Mary's service. Katharine refuses, but quickly finds herself embroiled in the shadowy sectarian conflict that rages beyond the King's notice. She withstands the threats and manipulations not only of Cromwell and his spies but Bishop Gardiner, the country's leading Catholic, who she had idolized. She struggles to maintain her honor and honesty against the moralizing of men like Throckmorton, who may or may not be double dealing against Cromwell:

'How shall you decide what is vileness, or where will you find a virtuous man?' he asked. 'Maybe you will find some among the bones of your old Romans. Yet your Seneca, in his day, did play the villain. Or maybe some at the Court of Mahound, I know not, for I was never there. But here is a goodly world, with prizes for them that can take them...'

Katharine soon learns that everyone is after these "prizes"--that is, except the King, who seeks only the prize of her company. Henry is the most intriguing and magnetic character here: impulsive and irascible, yet truly interested in the pursuit of "right doctrine," a notion lost on men like Cromwell and Gardiner, whose beliefs seem to serve only their ambitions. Perhaps his position as king affords him that right, but it is also a position he uses to lift Katharine out of harm's way at the book's finale, realizing keenly that she is a kindred soul.

But The Fifth Queen seems ultimately like a chronicle of lost opportunities. One wonders why Ford saw the need to transmogrify the historical Katharine into a Catholic stalwart if the religious issues were going to be glossed over. The idea of a Renaissance spy novel sounds great, but the intrigue is a muddle. Everything is a muddle, actually; as an early attempt by Ford to achieve an "impressionist" style, which reproduces the world as it is experienced and seen, The Fifth Queen succeeds mostly in making the particulars of action and location very unclear. Its greatest successes are in its population of minor characters, like the womanizing teacher Magister Udal, or the aged but infamous knight Sir Rochford.

On the other hand, as the first book in a trilogy, this can only amount to a half-finished opinion. I have faith in the abilities of Ford, who is capable of sneaking up on you unawares in a way that few authors are, so I hope for more from The Privy Seal and The Fifth Queen Crowned.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

He said, 'If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.'

The Blue Flower is the story of Georg Philipp Friedrich "Fritz" Freiherr von Hardenberg, better known as the German Romantic poet Novalis. Brilliant and passionate, born into Low German nobility, trained to be a Salt Mine Inspector, Hardenberg is at the center of a blossoming of German philosophy that comprises his friends Schiller and Schlegel, and the older Goethe, under whose mysterious shadow they live. Fitzgerald gives us limited insights into Hardenberg's philosophy--poetic in nature, and preoccupied with dissolving the artificial barriers between people and things. For this reason, his philosophy is found in surprising places:

Fitz covered sheet after sheet of paper with schemes for discovering new lignite beds and improving the supervision of tile-kilns and lime-kilns, with meteorological records which might help to bring the refinement of brine to a higher standard, and with notes on the legal aspect of salt manufacture. But he also saw himself as a geognost, a natural scientist, who as he put it, had come 'to an entirely new land, and dark stars.' The mining industry, it seemed to him, was not a science, but an art. Could anyone but an artist, a poet, understand the relationship between the rocks and the constellations? The mountain ranges, and the foothills with their burden of precious metals, coal and rock salt, were perhaps no more than traces of the former paths of stars and planets, who once trod the earth.

But the most surprising place is in a twelve-year old girl, Sophie von Kuhn, with whom Hardenberg falls in love, though he is ten years her senior. He calls her, half-punning, his "Philosophy," and promises to marry her at sight, though she is neither very pretty nor passably intelligent. Fitzgerald manages to do what ought to be impossible: depict Hardenberg's love for Sophie as passionate and genuine, while never suggesting that Sophie is anything but an unremarkable child:

Sophie did not possess many books. She had her hymnal, her Evangelium and a list, bound with ribbon, of all the dogs that her family had ever had, although some of them had died so long ago that she could not remember them. To this she now added the introductory chapter of the Blue Flower.

Though Sophie probably does not realize it, she is identified with the blue flower of this story, Hardenberg has written but cannot figure the meaning of. Like the flower, which obsesses the story's protagonist though he knows not why, Sophie's worth is ineffable but unquestionable. In a great moment, Hardenberg's brother Erasmus manages to track down the aloof Goethe:

Goethe went on, 'I think I know what you want to ask me. You wonder whether Fraulein von Kuhn, when she is restored to health, will be a true source of happiness to your brother. Probably you feel that there is not an equality of understanding between them. But rest assured, it is not her understanding that we love in a young girl. We love her beauty, her innocence, her trust in us, her airs and graces, her God knows what--but we don't love her for her understanding--nor, I am sure, does Hardenberg. He will be happy, at least for a certain number of years, with what she can offer him, and then he may have the incomparable blessing of children, while his poetry--'

Erasmus desperately caught the arm of the great man in mid-speech, spinning him round like flotsam in the tide. 'But that is not what I wanted to ask you!'

Goethe stopped and looked down at him... 'I was mistaken, then. You are not concerned about your brother's happiness?'

'Not about his!' cried Erasmus. 'About hers, about Sophie's about hers!'

In the second half of the novel, Sophie takes ill. As Hardenberg says, a story that begins with finding must end with searching, and what he has found in Sophie he must search for a cure to keep. Throughout her illness, Sophie keeps her cheer, embodying Hardenberg's remarkable words:

'As things are, we are the enemies of this world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this in animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, and the one cannot be measured without the other...'

I read this book because somewhere, in an article I know not where I read or when, Fitzgerald was compared to Muriel Spark, who is one of my favorite authors. To be sure, The Blue Flower reads like a Spark novel, light and clean and deceptively tidy. But Fitzgerald has strengths that Spark could never care to cultivate, like a genuine warmth toward her characters, and an unstudied air of historical expertise. I was delighted to find out, via Wikipedia, that these hilariously dull entries from Sophie's journal are historically accurate:

March 1. Today Hartenberch visited again nothing happened.
March 11. We were alone today and nothing at all happened.
March 12. Today was like yesterday nothing at all happened.
March 13. Today was repentance day and Hartenb. was here.
March 14. Today Hartenber. was still here he got a letter from his brother.

But Fitzgerald also manages to populate this slim novel with an extensive cast of sharply realized, highly individuated characters. Beyond Fritz and Sophie, I really enjoyed the cynical precociousness of Fritz's eight-year old brother, called "the Bernhard":

'I should prefer us all to be children,' said Erasmus, 'then we should have a kingdom of our own.'

'That is not at all my experience,' said the Bernhard.

When he was very young the Bernhard had believed that the six-year gap between himself and Sidonie would gradually disappear and that just as he would come to be as tall as she was, or taller, so he would grow to be the same age as she was, or older. He had been disillusioned.

In moments like this, I can see traces of Spark's crisp bluntness, but also a sense of playfulness alien to the frigid humor of her books.

Ultimately, The Blue Flower was one of those rare revelations for me, a book from an unknown author that I suspected I might like but which exceeded all of my expectations. I have expected so little from modern literature that it shocked me, too, to know that this book was written in 1995!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Oh, the tangle of human life! How dimly as yet we see. Here was Carrie, in the beginning poor, unsophisticated, emotional; responding with desire to everything most lovely in life, yet finding herself turned away as by a wall. Laws to say: "Be allured, if you will, by everything lovely, but draw not nigh unless by righteousness." Convention to say: "You shall not better your situation save by honest labour." If honest labour be unremunerative and difficult to endure; if it be the long, long road which never reaches beauty, but wearies the feet and the heart; if the drag to follow beauty be such that one abandons the admired way, taking rather the despised path leading to her dreams quickly, who shall cast the first stone? Not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring. Not evil, but goodness more often allures the feeling mind unused to reason.

Sister Carrie is a rag-to-riches story of sorts, though it makes the keen observations that while one has made their riches, many more are still in rags. It opens in a train car, by which young ingenue Carrie Meeber is moving from her small Wisconsin hometown to the great metropolis of Chicago. She meets a man on the train named Charles Drouet, who reappears months later to rescue her from the mean, dismal existence of a factory girl. At first Drouet offers basic sustenance--he buys her a simple meal--but what girl could turn down his offer to buy her a new set of clothes, too?

She lives with Drouet for a time, pretending to be his wife for propriety's sake. (This was the scandal that caused the book to be so controversial.) But soon she falls for an older, wealthier friend of Drouet's, the restaurant manager George Hurstwood, who plans to steal her from Drouet. His own marriage, unknown to Carrie, presents only a nuisance.

When things threaten to fall apart for Hurstwood--Carrie and his wife almost simultaneously discover the existence of each other--he steals ten thousand dollars and effectively kidnaps Carrie, luring her on to a Canada-bound train by telling her it will take them to a hospitalized Drouet. Sister Carrie, while on the whole characterized by the tedium necessary to properly convey the sensation of poverty, is punctuated by moments of desperate wildness like this. Later on, when Hurstwood and Carrie settle in New York City, he's driven to destitution by his lack of connections, and takes a job as a scab train conductor during a strike, leading him into a riot:

A woman--a mere girl in appearance--was among these, bearing a rough stick. She was exceedingly wrathful and struck at Hurstwood, who dodged. Thereupon, her companions, duly encouraged, jumped on the car and pulled Hurstwood over. He hardly had time to speak or shout before he fell.

"Let go of me," he said, falling on his side.

"Ah, you sucker," he heard some one say. Kicks and blows rained on him. He seemed to be suffocating. Then two men seemed to be dragging him off and he wrestled for freedom... Something was wet on his chin. He put up his hand and felt, then looked. It was red.

Carrie, with both luck and pluck, finds a job as a chorus girl and becomes an acting sensation, ultimately leaving Hurstwood when her independence is established. Hurstwood becomes homeless, and in a penultimate scene, cannot manage to be admitted to Carrie's dressing room in order to beg of her enough money for a day's meal.

There is something ineffably bleak about Hurstwood's downfall--he's selfish and foolish, but not for money. He even gives back the lion's share of the ten thousand that he steals. There is no irony of the kind that might be produced by a greedy man becoming penniless. His fault is his childish notion that if he can only be with Carrie, everything will be okay, not unlike Carrie's wistful gazing as the homes on Lake Shore Drive, the kind that Hurstwood used to occupy:

She was perfectly certain that here was happiness. If she could but stroll up yon broad walk, cross that rich entrance-way, which to her was of the beauty of a jewel, and sweep in grace and luxury to possession and command--oh! how quickly would sadness flee; how, in an instant, would the heartache end. She gazed and gazed, wondering, delighting, longing, and all the while the siren voice of the unrestful was whispering in her ear.

"If we could have such a home as that," said Mrs. Hale sadly, "how delightful it would be."

"And yet they do say," said Carrie, "that no one is ever happy."

"She had heard so much of the canting philosophy of the grapeless fox.

"I notice," said Mrs. Hale, "that they all try mighty hard, though, to take their misery in a mansion."

Later Carrie will come to know, as all the characters learn, the kindergartner's lesson that money isn't everything, but they will also learn that it is a useless observation. Money imposes itself upon innocent motives, and excessive need of it can be as damaging as excessive love of it.

Sister Carrie, I learned after reading it, has the reputation as being a poorly-written masterpiece. That's probably true, though it succeeds a great deal in depicting the psychology of its characters. Five years later Edith Wharton would write House of Mirth, which covers much of the same ground, I think, with more grace. But to those critics I also offer this, the book's last paragraph:

Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.

The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl

This is a collection of essays by various religious scholars and thinkers. It was published in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The title of the book comes from the title of the first essay, written by Khaled Abou El Fadl.

In his essay, El Fadl addresses the history of extremism in Islam, arguing that it is pushed to the periphery, sidelined by the majority, which rejects these extreme elements. However, he argues that in the last half of the 20th century, there has been a vacuum in religious authority. This vacuum has allowed Islamic puritans--as El Fadl calls them--to rise in prominence. El Fadl concludes his essay by making the case for tolerance in Islam. He argues that the views of Islamic puritans hinge on isolated verses from the Qur'an, when "it is impossible to analyze these and other verses except in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur'anic message." The last paragraph of his essay is a call for Muslim scholars to "sustain the moral trajectory" of Islam by rejecting intolerant interpretations.

The next section of the books contains thirteen essays by a variety of intellectuals.* Their essays are written in response to El Fadl's, and range from slightly refocusing El Fadl's argument to attacking it on a fundamental level. Abid Ullah Jan was by far the harshest critic of El Fadl's essay, arguing that the problem is not a lack of tolerance on the part of Islam, but of the Western World. Some of Jan's argument was very compelling.

The final essay of the book is El Fadl's chance to respond, to refine his argument. He addresses the salient points of each essay, incorporating some aspects and explaining why he rejects others. His final thought: "It is in the power and is in fact the duty of Muslims of every generation to answer the question: What Islam? The response must not be left in the hands of the bin Ladens of the world."

While topics brought up in this collection of essays are complex and multifaceted, the essays themselves are refined, brief even. It was an interesting and insightful read.
* Tariq Ali, R. Scott Appleby, Akeel Bilgrami, Joshua Cohen, John L. Esposito, Sohail Hashmi, Qamar-ul Huda, Abid Ullah Jan, Stanley Kurtz, Ian Lague, Mashwood Rizvi, Milton Viorst, Amina Wadud

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Lost World by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton does a good job following up his bestseller Jurassic Park. The books were quite similar in their overall tone and style, although I did find Lost World to be quite a bit more graphically gruesome than its predecessor.

Crichton works hard to squeeze two precocious tweens, Arby and Kelly, into the book, although there inclusion strains credulity far more than Lex and Tim did in Jurassic Park. However, the addition of Arby and Kelly was as much fun as it was improbable.

The only character from Jurassic Park that plays any significant role in Lost World is the rogue mathematician Ian Malcolm. This character is involved in most of the action in the book. We are treated to another one of Malcolm's morphine induced rants, updated with new thoughts on evolution, extinction, and mathematical theories. Complexity Theory has replaced Chaos Theory as the crux to Dr. Malcolm's intellectual meanderings.

While Crichton relies heavily on the themes he did in Jurassic Park, he adds new layers to the story of InGen's effort to bring dinosaurs back to life. If you enjoy the movies you will enjoy these books.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.

Richard Wright hated Their Eyes Were Watching God, saying that it had no "basic idea or theme," and to some extent I sympathize with this observation. This novel, both despite and because of its verbal pyrotechnics, is a mess:

Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe's funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.

For those of you keeping score at home, in this scenario, Janie's face is a piece of cloth behind a wall of indiscriminate matter that she sends to a funeral so she can go "rollicking with the springtime." The incongruity suggested by using a veil to cloak a face that is already falsified seems not to matter.

But then again, there is such exuberance to Hurston's prose--an exuberance that matches Janie's--that can beguile even a savvy reader and conceal its erraticness. In short excerpts, like the one above, that exuberance can provide a sense of energy and movement, but over the course of the novel it becomes burdensome, and one sees what Wright meant when he said that Hurston wrote with "facile sensuality."

On the other hand, Their Eyes Were Watching God comes from a fundamentally different place than Black Boy. For her part, Hurston criticized the notion that black culture was a reaction to white oppression, which is one of the fundamental aspects of southern life that Wright found so alienating. Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, the nation's first all-black community, Hurston was not well-disposed to this attitude.

The story of Eatonville is woven into the narrative of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's second marriage is to Jody Starks, the mayor of Eatonville, a larger-than-life man with a knack for inspiring followers and organizing a community. In fact, Janie's abandonment of her first husband, a poor and narrow-minded farmer named Logan Killicks, mirrors the transition from the slave-like sharecropper economy to the self-sufficient black community, and from traditional family-oriented values to broader civic ones. Jody is kind, handsome, and well-dressed when he chances on Killicks' farm, and Janie follows him to Eatonville, where he becomes mayor by the sheer force of his personality. Installing streetlamps and building post offices, he is successful, but Janie's role in town life is limited:

"Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home."

Janie made her face laugh after a short pause, but it wasn't too easy. She had never thought of making a speech, and didn't know if she cared to make one at all. It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things. But anyway, she went down the road behind him that night feeling cold.

What Jody denies Janie is, for Hurston, the fundamental unit of community: the right to speak. In Eatonville she has more than she had on Killicks' farm, but because she cannot contribute to it, she cannot truly participate in it. Hurston was a Columbia-educated ethnographer who studied the folklore of Florida, and Their Eyes reflects what she knew about the power of the spoken word. It's for that reason that the dialect is so painstakingly rendered; without it, the building of Eatonville cannot be accurately rendered. Hurston's prose, too, though maddening to Richard Wright (and myself), seems to reflects the verbal ingenuity and looseness of the folk groups it represents. In this, Hurston exercises the right and ability that Janie cannot.

That is, until Jody dies and Janie takes up with a much younger man, Tea Cake, who is little more than a drifter. Tea Cake cannot provide Janie with wealth, but he can provide her with the conversation that Jody could not, and "they made a lot of laughter out of nothing." The two of them leave Eatonville to work in the Everglades as itinerant farmers, and the symbolic transition is complete: from near-slavery to civic triumph to personal triumph, engineered by the same basic verbal tools. In this way Janie is a vision of the black achievement that seemed impossible to Wright, not only the construction of a real black culture but true individual fulfillment. It's still a mess, but perhaps a well-justified mess.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SuperGods by Grant Morrison

It may not be the Ten Commandments, but as a set of moral guidelines for the secular children of an age of reason, the Supermen of America creed was a start. This is the story of the founding of a new belief and its conquest of the world: With a stroke of lightning, the spark of divine inspiration ignited cheap newsprint and the superhero was born in an explosion of color and action. From the beginning, the ur-god and his dark twin presented the world with a frame through which our own best and worst impulses could be personified in an epic struggle across a larger-than-life, two-dimensional canvas upon which our outer and inner worlds, our present and future, could be laid out and explored. They came to save us from the existential abyss, but first they had to find a way into our collective imagination.

I’m a fan of Grant Morrison. His run on Animal Man in the 80s (in which Animal Man SPOILERS meets his creator and convinces him to change history) expanded my vision of what comic books could do. Such postmodern conceits are so common now that even Stephen King has used them, but at the time, it seemed fresh and, reading it now, it’s still an exemplary piece of comic writing, working on both an emotional level and as a satirical look at the grim-and-gritty ethos that was devouring comics at the time, in the wake of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

Reading SuperGods, Morrison’s history of comic book slash autobiography, I had a realization that now colors my view of his work: writing a get-together with Animal Man was easy for Morrison because he truly believes that superheroes exist. Reading SuperGods reminded me of reading Harold Bloom, in that, while Bloom seems to want to replace religion with poetry, Morrison has, in his own life, replaced supernatural belief with belief in the ethos of the characters he creates. He speaks of the 2 dimensional comic book universe as though he’s spent as much time there as he has in the real world, and that’s not all. Morrison also practices chaos magic, writes extensively, in an almost unreadable chapter ostensibly covering his ultra-weird Flex Mentallo series, about a series of drug trips he had while traveling Asia in search of spiritual enlightenment. It’s weird stuff, interesting but also somewhat alienating.

As a history, Morrison’s book is extremely interesting. Unlike Men of Tomorrow, the comic history I read back in 2009, it doesn’t attempt to be unbiased, instead offering Morrison’s unique take on comics from the Golden Age onward. He skims over some important creators to talk about obscure characters like Killraven, and spends as much time comparing superheroes to obscure Hindu gods as does recounting milestones of the industry. It also glosses over Morrison’s feud with contemporary luminary Alan Moore, who badmouthed Morrison’s breakthrough Arkham Asylum resulting in Morrison savaging Watchmen, but time seems to have softened Morrison’s views—nearly every book mentioned in SuperGods is praised for something.

If you’re a comic nerd, you probably don’t need my recommendation to read SuperGods, and if you’re not, it probably won’t interest you no matter how good it is. It’s snappily written, packed with anecdotes, and, even though its focus is weird, so is Morrison, so it all works out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass.

I went on vacation last week, and decided that I didn't want to muck around with something I wasn't sure I would like or might find too grim. I got through a few chapters of Sister Carrie and liked it, but a realist novel about the hardships of factory workers didn't seem like enough of a beach read. So it was back to the well, and a book I knew I loved.

Watership Down remains one of my favorite novels because it is deceptively ingenious. Its most remarkable achievement is the construction of a culture and mythology from the raw material of animal behavior. The best I can tell, Adams draws from a single source, R. M. Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit, yet manages to spin from that single thread an intricate patchwork of rabbit language, religion, and custom. At the same time, Watership Down is an incredible adventure story, complete with a hero, a journey, a war, and even foreboding prophecies, writ rabbit-sized. Its cleverness is unmistakeable, but it hardly asks to be regarded as an intellectual exercise.

The story follows Hazel and a group of rabbits who, shaken by a vision of death glimpsed by the runt and prophet Fiver, leave their home at Sandleford Warren to found a new warren. Hazel acts on faith, trusting that Fiver's perception of a rabbit-Canaan, the titular Watership Down, are truth. Their journey is (naturally) fraught with peril, but ironically most of the conflict comes with other rabbits, while Hazel's leadership leads them to befriend seagulls and mice.

The Watership Down rabbits visit two other warrens, most notably the fascist dictatorship Efrafa, which they raid for does. Efrafa, which is run by a madman general named Woundwort, is the most fun and provides the most memorable bits of action. But it's the other warren, unnamed, which they come across almost immediately after leaving Sandleford, that interests me most. The rabbits there are large and live in relative luxury, but they have remarkably human-like qualities, including making art and writing poetry. They also seem to have lost faith in the rabbit religion of Frith and the trickster-hero El-araihrah:

"I always think these traditional stories retain a lot of charm," said another one of the rabbits, "especially when they're told in the real, old-fashioned spirit."

"Yes," said Strawberry. "Conviction, that's what it needs. You really have to believe in El-ahrairah and Prince Rainbow, don't you? Then all the rest follows."

If you don't find that patronizing, perhaps you should select this book for your next Upper East Side White Liberal Guilt Book Club. The rabbits of this warren have, it turns out, been spending too much time around humans, who feed them flayrah (delicacies) but gird the warren with snares. The death of a rabbit becomes a taboo subject, because to ignore when a rabbit is snared means to reap a reward in lettuce. In this way Watership Down pits traditional, older values against progressive and modern ones, which become linked to the unchecked development that destroys Sandleford Warren, as well as the rigid fascism of Woundwort and Efrafa.

Later on, one of the rabbits hears another poem, this time from an oppressed Efrafan doe that succeeds where the poems of the progressive warren could not:

Long ago
The yellowhammer sang, high on the thorn.
He sang near a litter that the doe brought out to play,
He sang in the wind and the kittens played below.
Their time slipped by all under the elder bloom.
But the bird flew away and now my heart is dark
And time will never play in the fields again.

Oddly, the book that Watership Down now reminds me of is Robert Graves' The White Goddess, which also holds that true poetry can only come from ancient religion and devotion. Of the progressive warren, Fiver warns:

Did I say the roof of that hall was made of bones? No! It's like a great mist of folly that covers the whole sky: and we shall never see to go by Frith's light any more. Oh what will become of us? A thing can be true and still be desperate folly, Hazel.

These traditional values, whether they reflect truth or not, bind the warren together as a social unit and give them strength. Similarly, Watership Down extols acceptance and stoicism over sophistry, and ingenuity over intellectualism. (The rabbits figure out how to use a boat, but they can't count to five.) Those who would call it Lord of the Rings with rabbits are spot-on, not merely because of the cleverness of its constructed world, or the power of its narrative, but because of its firm belief in poetic tradition and classical values.

It is also a really good adventure story about rabbits.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I read my first Gaiman book last year--American Gods. It is one of the better books I've read in a while. I had seen the movie adaptation of Stardust, and figured I would like the book.

Like most of Gaiman's work, Stardust is fantasy adventure. The story takes place in the small village of Wall, in the fields of England. The village is named after the high stone wall that runs beside it. Tristran Thorn, a young man who lives in the village, makes a impetuous promise to a young girl one night. Upon seeing a falling star, he vows to go find it and return it to her. Tristran finds out that he is not the only seeker of the fallen star. Others seeking the star include three princes vying to take control of their ailing father's kingdom and a witch-queen.

There was a portentous tone to American Gods. The tone of Stardust was the complete opposite: everything was a lark. One could almost hear Gaiman saying, "Isn't this book just crazy?" as the pages turned. There were a few points where this whimsical nature broke down somewhat, where things got "real," gritty, adult even. I think this is what Gaiman intended. Stardust is a fairytale, but one that has grown up.


As a side note, reading this book gave me a perfect example of why I love books--actual books. I took this from a bookshelf in my girlfriend's parents' house. It appears the last person to have read it was her younger sister. She left post-it notes with comments on the writing and some with seemingly random thoughts and doodles. This is a kind of tangible link that books can create between people.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Black Boy by Richard Wright

This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled.

My students enjoy Black Boy. Though they wouldn't want to admit it, what they like best is its conventionality; it is far less alien to them than King Lear or Oedipus the King or The Importance of Being Earnest, both in method and culture. It reassures them of what they already know: that racism is bad, and that there was a distant time (how distant, who knows or cares) in which nobody knew that. For my part, I find the absence of grumbling a relief. But I also find their comfort ironic, because Black Boy is essentially a novel of discomfort, of severe isolation from the social world, and I wonder if the years since its publication have robbed it of some of its strange and powerful loneliness.

The American South of the novel's first half is a place in which Wright is repeatedly assured from his childhood that he and others like him do not belong. Starved for civilized thought, he pretends to be on an errand from a white boss to check out books from a Memphis library. When other whites see him with a book of Mencken's, they warn him that he'll "addle his brains," not only denigrating his right to the skills, like reading, which produce social mobility, but his right to the participate in the medium of society. This tactic, Wright laments, has worked:

Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it. And when I brooded upon the cultural barrenness of black life, I wondered if clean, positive tenderness, love, honor, loyalty, and the capacity to remember were native with man. I asked myself if these human qualities were not fostered, won, struggled and suffered for, preserved in ritual from one generation to another.

The young Richard's endless shuffle of new homes--the family bounces around Tennessee and Arkansas, never staying anywhere long enough for Richard to complete a year of school--becomes a symbol of Southern society's refusal to provide blacks with a spiritual or cultural home.

But what makes Black Boy most remarkable to me is its stark depiction of Wright's individual isolation. As a boy, he constantly clashes with authority, particularly his puritan grandmother and other assorted family members, whom he paints as selfish and vindictive. His agnosticism sets him against not only them but his community as a whole, though he yearns to be a part of it:

Nevertheless, I was so starved for association with people that I allowed myself to be seduced by it all, and for a few months I lived the life of an optimist. A revival began at the church and my classmates at school urged me to attend. More because I liked them than from any interest in religion, I consented. As the sermon progressed night after night, my mother tried to persuade me to join, to save my soul at last, to become a member of a responsible community church.

Gulled by the promise of inclusion, Richard allows himself to be baptized, but is unable to bring his heart and mind around. This is the fundamental tension of the book, the impossible negotiation between individuality and community, which requires some level of submission. Repeatedly Richard finds that he is unable to refashion himself into what's expected of him, whether as an obedient son, an ardent churchgoer, or an obsequious black.

In the book's second half, which follows him to Chicago, he casts his lot in with the Communist party for these very reasons. For Richard, the communists represent the ultimate vision of community. He begins an ambitious writing project profiling communist leaders, thinking:

At last, I thought, I would reveal dramas of hope, fear, love, and hate that existed in these humble people. I would make these lives merge with the lives of the mass of mankind. I knew I could. My life had prepared me for this.

But the Party turns out to be every bit as authoritarian as the society Richard had escaped. They squabble over petty differences, and pressure him to abandon his writing project in favor of community organizing, for which he has no passion or skill. In fact, many are suspicious of Richard's talent and erudition, deriding him as an "intellectual" despite his meager formal education. To be an intellectual is the antithesis of revolutionary fervor, which is reactionary and obedient. To be an intellectual is almost like being a Trotskyite. Branded with heresy, Richard reluctantly leaves the Party before he is forced out.

It seems to me that Wright is driven to agony by the essential futility of a writer's task. Though the goal is communitarian--to share some parcel of existence--the method is fundamentally individual. Society cannot write; a person can, yet the strength of his work relies on the depth of his originality. The individual-community tension cannot be resolved; the yearning for both cannot be satisfied. That makes Black Boy a very strange and troubling book, one that rejects its own ability to accomplish its most basic goals.