Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White

Without much thought for her own wreckage, she moved slowly down what had been a beach, picking her way between torn-off branches, great beaded hassocks of amber weed, everywhere fish the sea had tossed out, together with a loaf of no longer bread, but a fluffier, disintegrating foam rubber.  Just as she was no longer a body, least of all a woman: the myth of her womanhood had been exploded by the storm.  She was instead a being, or more likely a flaw at the centre of this jewel of light: the jewel itself, blinding and tremulous at the same time, existed, flaw and all, only by grace; for the storm was still visibly spinning and boiling at a distance, in columns of cloud, its walls hung with vaporous balconies, continually shifted and distorted.

The aged, dying woman at the heart of The Eye of the Storm is the perfect vehicle for Patrick White's preoccupations and style.  He's so obsessed with the minutiae of the body, its various colors, smells, textures, effluvia, but he's no materialist; there's always the possibility of metaphysical transcendence.  Perhaps transcendence is, for White, what the everyday experience of living is made of, and death its ultimate expression.  So he has a field day with the body of Elizabeth Hunter, the eighty-six year old socialite, motionless and mostly blind, but often tricked out by her nurses in gaudy makeup, inherited jewels, and a lilac wig.

Sensing the end, Elizabeth Hunter's adult children return to Sydney to provoke a little bit of money from their mother, and hopefully shunt her off to a home.  Her daughter Dorothy, the Princess des Lascabanes, needs an infusion of cash to keep up the lifestyle she leads in France after her husband leaves her.  Her son Basil, a famous theater actor in London, wants to fund a misbegotten modern theater piece.  (There is something here about Australian anxiety toward the culture of Europe; something the materialistic children are drawn to, but not their mother.)

Both Dorothy and Basil despise their mother, who they consider to be cold and cruel, though this seems to be a matter of interpretation.  While not warm, White gives Elizabeth Hunter a kind of aloof wisdom, and suggests perhaps that the spiritually stunted children are incapable of seeing what is remarkable in their mother.  Among other things, she insists that she can and will die at the exact moment she wills it.  It's her night nurse, Sister de Santis, who really understands her.  Another nurse, the delightfully named Flora Manhood, is as drawn to Elizabeth as she is repelled; she cracks a plan to have the visiting Basil impregnate her for obscure reasons.  Nurses, housekeepers, cooks, the lawyer: these hangers-on make up a kind of family that supersedes Dorothy and Basil.

I couldn't help but think of May Sarton's Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids SingingBoth novels are about older women trawling through memories: dead husbands, incomprehensible love affairs.  "The past has been burnt into me, I suppose," she says, "like they do with cattle."  But it's The Eye of the Storm that's really a novel about genius, partially because White's bizarre writing really is genius, and partially because it has no need to use the word genius: it abides there in the metaphysics.  The central transcendental moment is the eye of the titular hurricane; as Elizabeth Hunter recalls, abandoned on a remote island by her daughter, she hid in a bunker during a typhoon and experienced, all alone, the strange magic of the eye.  The transcendence of it--described by White in typically sensual fashion, above--is predicated on a kind of lesson of contingency.  Elizabeth sees the storm, and knows that she exists by grace only, and it only follows that such a grace cannot be permanent.  To know these moments of heightened life is to know, also, death.  No wonder Dorothy remains forever jealous of the experience.

When she does die, as she obviously must, it's on the toilet.  White's old body-obsession and potty humor.  But the moment is described as a kind of becoming, a fulfillment rather than a loss.  It slips rather beautifully into Elizabeth's point-of-view: "Till I am no longer filling the void with mock substance: myself is this endlessness."  I don't know if it's a good death, like the Archbishop's, but it seems beside the point; earlier in the novel she tells us that dying ought to be the hardest thing you ever do; that's the point of it.  It's not beautiful either; White's books never are, but it has a kind of power and truth I never find anywhere else.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton

The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things.  In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things.  And yet we find that the nakedness of reality which we have feared, is neither a matter of terror nor for shame.  It is clothed in the friendly communion of silence, and this silence is related to love.  The world our words have attempted to classify, to control and even to despise (because they could not contain it) comes close to us, for silence teaches us to know reality by respecting it where words have defiled it.

I took a trip to Kentucky last week.  We drove only a few minutes past the monastery where Thomas Merton, surely the most famous American monastic, lived for most of his life, and where he wrote Thoughts in Solitude.  It was easy, rising early as we did, to understand the attraction of solitude in the landscape of the Bluegrass region of Kentucky: the mist rising on rolling hills, the frost on grass like glass, etc., etc.

But my impressions, tied as they are to place and time, are really a kind of lie: Merton's solitude is as achievable, and as difficult, in the city as well as the country or the desert.  It's a kind of way of being, an accommodation with the creation that is the self, and therefore with a manifestation of God.  Because we are "a transient expression of Your inexhaustible and eternal reality," we know God by better knowing ourselves.

Merton's meditations on solitude and the spirit probably won't interest non-spiritual people.  They might, as I was, be interested in Merton because of the obsession of Ethan Hawke's beleaguered priest in last year's First Reformed.  (That guy ought to remember that Merton advises, "The God of peace is never glorified by violence.")  Skeptics might be surprised by Merton's version of monasticism, which is really nothing like the flight from the world that the non-spiritual imagine it to be.  One of Merton's themes, in facts, is that a spiritual life must recognize the essential totality of an individual, that because we are fully human we must turn to God with our whole selves: social, professional, all of it.  He certainly wouldn't recommend a monk's life to most.  But his version of solitude is more than a turning away from others; it's a kind of complete attention to the self that directs to God.

The prose style of Thoughts in Solitude seems like something a monk might produce: clear, strong, but also abstract, developed with a slow care that seems like it could only be achieved where the writer has the luxury to devote his entire attention to every word.  You can tell that Merton has taken to heart his own advice about books:

Books can speak to us like God, like men or like the noise of the city we live in.  They speak to us like God when they bring us light and peace and fill us with silence.  They speak to us like God when we desire never to leave them.  They speak to us like men when we desire to hear them again.  They speak to us like the noise of the city when they hold us captive by a weariness that tells us nothing, give us no peace, and no support, nothing to remember, and yet will not let us escape.

There's an impeccable wisdom in that.  It feels true.  It feels, also, inexplicable, as if to say anything else would obviate the ability of Merton's words to "bring us light and peace and fill us with silence."  So I won't say any more.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton

"Odd, isn't it?  How these quarries, blasted open by dynamite, the scene of so much violence, so much lifting and carrying too, after they are abandoned, become magic places, deep ponds."  She paused, probing the image which had been spoken before she really saw what she had been given.  "Rich and peaceful," she said.  "As far as I can see, it's not a question of fidelity, of the violent encounter with no possible future against some unimaginable lasting fatigue.  No, what is important is dept.  Hell is very deep, as well as Heaven, so we can almost never quarrel with Hell."  She looked out over the tranquil deep water, a dark green, opaque, she noticed today, under the overcast sky.  How to speak to a wound?

May Sarton's (absurdly titled) Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing tells the story of a day in the life of poet F. Hilary Stevens.  Hilary has been a novelist and a poet all her life, once to some acclaim, but it's only now in her old age that one of her new collections has become a hit.  (The fact that, in this novel, a collection of poems is a bestseller ought to tell you exactly how contemporary it is.)  The fame is unexpected, its rewards more dubious perhaps than those of the poems themselves.  But it results in two interviewers being sent to her Cape Ann home.  The interview, by stepping chronologically through her past publications, dredges up all the old memories that are the context of the poems: a dead husband, several abortive lesbian love affairs, a long stay of convalescence in the hospital.

Along the way, Mrs. Stevens explores several aspects of what it means to be a writer, and a woman writer particularly.  The metaphor of the quarries above suggests that poems are the result of an encounter with violence that produces depth.  Poetry has an alchemical power to transform life, and it enjoys a freedom that feeling unmediated never can:

Everything could now be said--this was the intoxicating discovery Hilary made.  She could go the limit with her feeling; she could come to terms with it by analyzing it through the written word.  She could praise, rage, despair, love, in peace.  No one could say her nay: even the self-imposed censor could be quelled.

For Hilary, one of the biggest questions is how to be both a woman completely and a writer completely; when her husband was alive it didn't seem possible, but we learn that his death, while tragic, opened her up to new possibilities.  The affairs she has with women underline the novel's queer themes; its bookended by visits from a young Cape Ann teen who is struggling with his own same-sex yearnings.  During all these revelations, Hilary keeps slipping out of the interview room to stare out of windows and grapple with the intensity of her memories.

There's a strange melodrama to these scenes: Did she forget about her husband's death?  The hospital?  Far from being a "descent into hell" of feeling, the interview seems largely cerebral.  It's conducted by a knowledgeable, if somewhat overbearing, man and a younger, less knowledgeable but clearly more intensely sensitive, woman.  They're meant to represent Hilary's masculine and feminine aspects, no doubt, and as a result the interview mostly feels like a single brain talking to itself.  There's not enough tension to make the torrent of feeling believable, no sense that Hilary is really being challenged from the outside at all.

But mostly--and maybe this is a harsh thing to say--the book falls flat for me because I don't really trust it to say something valuable about literary genius.  It's a well written book, with sharply observed characters, but genius isn't there, and that would be all right enough if it didn't present itself as being about genius in the first place.  This seems connected to the book's insistence on describing Hilary's poetry without ever presenting any verse at all.  Did Sarton, who must have felt some identification with her character, feel unequal to the task of writing the poems themselves?  It's not about the poems, I guess, but about Hilary's creative life, but it seems to me like a mistake to pretend the two are separable.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer

This book is written out of the simple, fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed.  It is written with the understanding that our present tense is evolving as rapidly and creatively as everyone else's.  In a sense, it is a selfish project.  I want--I need--to see Indian life as more than a legacy of loss and pain, because I want to pass on to my beautiful children a rich heritage and an embracing vision of who we were and who we are.  But I have not allowed myself to conjure alternative (hopeful but false) realities out of the desire to make up for a traumatic past or to imagine a better future.  Looking at what actually was and is, beyond the blinders that the "dead Indian" narrative has imposed, means reckoning with relentless attacks on our sovereignty and the suffering it has created.  But it also brings into view the ingenious and resourceful counterattacks we have mounted over the decades, in resistance to the lives the state would have us live.

David Treuer's terrific history of Native America, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, is both a sequel and a response to Dee Brown's seminal Bury Me at Wounded Knee.  It begins in 1890, the year of the Wounded Knee massacre that serves as the endpoint of Brown's history.  But Treuer objects to Brown's suggestion that Wounded Knee was the end of history for Native Americans, a point at which a total conquest was completed and white America claimed victory.  Although that reading of Brown is a little simplistic, it's not hard to see how Treuer, who grew up on Minnesota's Ojibwe Leech Lake Reservation, is frustrated by Brown's history, which plays into modern ideas of the vanished or vanishing Indian.  We're here, Treuer says, as we've always been.

Heartbeat isn't sanguine.  It's honest about the state of Native American reservations today--the Standing Rock reservation remains the heart of the nation's poorest county--and the challenges that still face Native communities.  But there are stories here you might be surprised to never have heard, like the story of the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota who successful resisted government allocation (a process by which communal tribal land was parceled out to individual stakeholders and the remainder sold to whites) and who have held onto their tribal government for a hundred years.  A chapter on Native casinos and entrepreneurialism profiles the wealthy Tulalip, whose casino outside Seattle has enriched and enlivened the tribe there.  Beside these historical accounts are anecdotal profiles and interviews with living Native Americans to emphasize the central thesis of the historical: Native Americans are not ghosts or relics.

Reading Heartbeat has really helped me put some of the reading I've been doing into context.  Treuer explains how Piegan Blackfeet saw raiding as "quasi-spiritual" and "ceremonial" activity that helped me understand the development of the title character in Fools CrowThe explanation of allotment shed a light on Louise Erdrich's Tracks, in which Native characters are always actively avoiding the Indian Agent who wants to allot Ojibwe land; I never quite got what it was they were afraid of until now.  His history of the messy but idealistic occupation of Alcatraz Island is crucial for understanding the cultural and political ambivalence of Tommy Orange's There ThereBut more than anything else, it was a reminder of why these books seem so vital: because they are evidence of contemporaneous Native voices and speak with the same urgency.  Like Treuer's history, they insist: We are here; we never left; we have a future as well as a past.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Wiping away her own tears she tried to sing what she heard.  But her voice was as crude and out of tune as she was.  When she heard it she started to cry.  It was the first time she'd ever cried, she didn't know she had so much water in her eyes.  She cried, blew her nose no longer knowing what she was crying about.  She wasn't crying because of the life she led: because, never having led any other, she'd accepted that with her that was just the way things were.  But I also think she was crying because, through the music, she might have guessed there were other ways of feeling, there were more delicate existences and even a certain luxury of soul.

Clarice Lispector's novella The Hour of the Star is a tough little nugget: Ostensibly, it tells the story of a poor woman named Macabea in Rio de Janeiro who lives a pretty brief and unremarkable life.  Macabea is poor, and the poverty is sort of the point.  It's the poverty not only that keeps her eating nothing but hot dogs, but also that keeps her from understanding that you might live not eating hot dogs every day.  She ends up with a bitter man named Olimpico, not dreaming that she might leave him for someone who treats her well, or even that such a man might exist; in the end, he's the one that leaves her.  In the end end she is--and I guess I'll say "spoiler alert" if anyone plans on actually tracking down this little book--she's hit by a car and dies.  As she's leaving a fortune teller.

On the way there, Lispector offers up a convincing but spare sketch of what poverty does to the human psyche.  Much of it is funny and nicely observed:

When she was a girl she'd seen a house painted pink and white with a yard where there was a well and everything.  It was good to look inside.  So her ideal became this: to have a well just for her.  But she didn't know how and so she asked Olimpico:

--Do you know if you can buy a hole?

But Macabea is only half the story, maybe less than half.  The other major character is the narrator, himself from the rural northeast of Brazil, like Macabea.  We don't know what his name is, or how he knew her, but we do know that he feels immense pressure to get her story right, to tell it convincingly.  The first thirty pages or so--and this book is only about eighty pages long--feature the narrator obsessing about his task, trying to dispel his own doubts, fretting over the success of the story he's putting off.  Lispector's style, already so elliptical, evokes similar frustration in the reader:

To draw the girl I have to get a grip on myself and to capture her soul I have to feed myself frugally with fruits and drink iced white wine because it's hot in this cubbyhole I've locked myself into and from which I'm inclined to want to see the world.  I've also had to give up sex and soccer.  Not to mention that I avoid all human contact.  Will I someday return to my former way of life?  I very much doubt it.  I now see that I forgot to mention for the time being I read nothing for fear of polluting the simplicity of my language with luxuries.  Since as I said the word has to resemble the word, my instrument.  Or am I not a writer?  Actually I'm more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another's breathing to accompany my text.

There's a whole Notes from the Underground thing going on, but the narrator isn't a misanthrope; in fact, he's a kind of humanist who can't live with the idea of not telling the story in the right way.  Buy why Macabea?  The question, maybe, is the point: why not Macabea?  Why shouldn't a poor girl, both unattractive and dim (as the narrator tells us), have her story told as faithfully as anyone else?

Beyond that, I didn't quite "get" this novella.  Its peripatetic and incomplete qualities are surely intentional, but the distance they create make me feel a little at sea.  Something closer to realism might have told me about Macabea's life, but here the story really becomes about the narrator, and the very modernist anxiety about whether or not it is impossible to put the truth into words.  Still, I think I understand why Lispector's cult has grown: there's a breathtaking bravery in the way she strings words and sentences together, not really caring if the connection is clear.  The writing itself can be staggeringly fresh, but I'm not sure it made me want to wade into that 700-page collection of her short fiction that everyone raves about.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

There's no sea chart for a boat in a hurricane.  But there are still some basic ways to make her seaworthy and keep her from capsizing, going to pieces, or hitting an iceberg.

I didn't get as much out of Ursula K. Le Guin's book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, as I was hoping.  It's pretty narrowly focused, eschewing big questions about character and plot and worldmaking--the things I would really like to hear from Le Guin about--for discussions of real nuts-and-bolts stuff like point-of-view, tense, and repetition.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love that stuff, and it's a lot of what I focus on in my fiction writing class.  And maybe that's the problem: Le Guin's book is full of great, practical advice, but it's mostly stuff I already believe.

It was nice to hear, however, some of my own advice repeated back to me, like:

Particularly disturbing is the effect of being jerked into a different viewpoint for a moment.  With care, the involved author can do this (Tolkien does it with the fox).  But it cannot be done in limited third person.  If you're writing the story from Della's point of view, you can say, "Della looked up into Rodney's adoring face," but you can't say, "Della raised her incredibly beautiful violet eyes to Rodney's adoring face."  Though Della may be well aware that her eyes are violet and beautiful, she doesn't see them when she looks up.  Rodney sees them.
(Beginning writers do this literally all the time, and it's always just like this: a description of eyes, or a face, or a smile.)  Or:

Anton Chekhov gave some advice about revising a story: first, he said, throw out the first three pages.  As a young writer I figured that if anybody knew about short stories, it was Chekhov, so I tried taking his advice.  I really hoped he was wrong, but of course he was right.

The best section of the book, actually, is Le Guin's examples of the different kinds of point of view.  She tells one simple story, about a space princess who is anxious about her place in the kingdom and makes eye contact with a friendly face in a crowd, from several different points of view and the examples do a terrific job of showing how each affects the nature of the story.  I'm going to use those as examples in my class.  But the exercises she includes are not especially helpful and interesting, and though she includes a lot of really fascinating examples of authors using the tools she discusses--mostly, it turns out, Virginia Woolf--I would have liked to see them explicated or explored more.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.  He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man.  Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, 'knew me to see but not to speak to' and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.  I knew his age, but not because he got shot and it was given by the media, but because there had been talk of this, for months before the shooting, by these people of the rumour, that forty-one and eighteen was disgusting, that twenty-three years' difference was disgusting, that he was married and not to be fooled by me for there was plenty of quiet, unnoticeable people who took a bit of watching.  It had been my fault too, it seemed, this affair with the milkman.  But I had not been having an affair with the milkman.  I did not like the milkman and had been frightened and confused by his pursuing and attempting an affair with me.

Twice in a week, middle sister, the protagonist of Anna Burns' novel is invited to see a sunset.  This, to her, is strange--it's not something do, watching the sun go down.  Once, she's invited by maybe-boyfriend, and once by her French teacher, who is trying to get her entire class to see what they stubbornly refuse to see.  The sky is blue, the class insists, even though they know it can also be "black (the night sky) and white (cloudy)," but as middle sister says, "It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?  Failed too, in the interrogation of the consequence of seeing more than we could cope with?"  The sunset stands in here for everything her Catholic community in Northern Ireland refuses to see, to cope with, to find the language for.  And yet, the sky is all sorts of colors when you really look at it.

Milkman is a novel about the way that community, especially at times of intense violence and sectarian division, controls and determines the way we see and think.  This is reflected in Burns' funny choice not to give any of the characters names: Middle sister, maybe-boyfriend, first brother, third brother, Somebody McSomebody, milkman, the real milkman, also known as the man who didn't love anybody.  There is an official list of permitted names, middle sister explains, meant to keep "renouncers" from giving their kids names from "over the water," and in the end it's easier just to not name anything at all for fear of reprisal.  Middle sister, for her part, is known for her peculiar habit of reading while walking, another way of turning one's face from the facts.  It's always a nineteenth century novel, we're told, because she "did not like the twentieth century at all."

Rumor, too, is a way of forcing the world to cohere to acceptable modes of being.  The action of the novel is sparked by the milkman, a famed renouncer paramilitant who takes a sudden sexual interest in middle sister.  He appears suddenly and without warning, sometimes with cronies and sometimes alone, sometimes on foot and sometimes in his white van.  Rumor and gossip transform stalking into an affair, and an affair with a paramilitant is a dangerous thing to pursue.  Milkman is the story of how these rumors destabilize middle sister's life, throwing a wrench in her relationship with maybe-boyfriend, her mother, her community, and in her own conception of herself.

There is the frightening suggestion that the narrative of the community can overcome someone's own story about herself, reduce her to nothingness.  This fear is circumscribed by violence, and not just the historically particular violence of Northern Ireland but the everyday violence that men impose on women.  The way that rumor threatens to overpower middle sister is reproduced here, in this country, all the time, by the powers of rape culture.  I agree with Chloe, who writes that it's frustrating to watch middle sister let "rumors build and swirl around her," but how many women women in our place and time lack the language or the trust to clearly articulate what it is that menaces them also?

For all that, the novel is incredibly funny and engaging.  It has itself a kind of garrulous gossipy quality to it, and I can't think of many books that do a better job matching theme and voice.  The sentences are long, digressive, redundant, oblique, but all those qualities suggest just how difficult it is to come right to the point and see what's in front of one's face.  "The truth was dawning on me of how terrifying it was not to be numb," middle sister explains, "but to be aware, to have facts, retain facts, be present, be adult."  And despite that it retains a kind of fresh and exuberant language that really propels the book forward.

It ends weirdly, well after the milkman's death--that's not a spoiler, it's in the first line of the book--but all that violence and gossip continue well after he's gone.  We get the violent confrontation we were expecting, but not between middle sister and the milkman, but between middle sister and Somebody McSomebody, a nothing punk who only pretends to be a paramilitant.  His attack is weak, scuttled, but it's a testament to the power of narratives to outlive those who create them, and we come to understand that things are not going to go back to "normal" for middle sister.  But maybe, Burns suggests, she might be a little more aware about what is so strange about normal, and how much more there is to see in the world.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedomby David W. Blight

Douglass was the prose poet of America's and perhaps of a universal body politic; he searched for the human soul, envisioned through slavery and freedom in all their meanings.

Blight is a distinguished historian who has been writing about the Civil War era and its relevance to contemporary America for over 30 years.  This is his latest attempt to wrestle this massive project into shape and it is a magisterial and eminently readable book.  At 763 pages it is more Douglass than most people really need and there were times when having it in my bag felt like I was carrying Douglass himself on my back.  However, it captures the sweep of this man’s life, giving him his due as a saint-like prophet and capturing his limited humanity.

The first third of the biography focusses on Douglass’s early life – material well covered in his three autobiographies.  Blight uses these pages to analyze both the historical accuracy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglassand its ongoing impact on our view of America.  He stresses that Douglass was a propogandist, writing with an overriding political purpose, but that that purpose made him highly motivated to truth and accuracy – anti-abolitionists were quick to jump on any hint of exaggeration or inaccuracy. While this work does not wander into the modern notion of a psychoanalytic biography, Blight does take some care to imagine how the early loss of his mother, the complete lack of knowledge of his birthday or his father, and the likelihood of post-traumatic stress would affect his thinking and his relationships.  He returns to these ideas late in the book when he discusses Douglass’s continued searching for his birthday and his paternity even as a famous man in his 70s.

What Blight adds to this period of Douglass’s life that the Narrativehides somewhat is the careful apprenticeship the young Douglass goes through while emerging as an abolitionist activist and speaker.  In his own Narrative, Douglass gives the impression that, moved by the spirit of freedom, his first attempts at speaking out against slavery in at an Anti-Slavery Society meeting New Bedford are his first attempt at public speaking.  In fact, Douglass had been an itinerant preacher since before his escape from slavery and his emergence as a leading voice against slavery develops slowly, with a lengthy period of small speaking roles before he is given a prime spot.  While there is no doubt Douglass had a tremendous native talent as an orator, he also practiced his craft very consciously and self-consciously.  His fame is well-earned.

The middle third of the book is taken up largely with accounts of Douglass’s growing and evolving political acumen.  Blight is adept at summarizing the complex arguments of various factions within the abolitionist movement and showing how Douglass’s thinking incorporates and rejects varieties of these arguments.  Having begun his career as a devotee of William Lloyd Garrison’s apolitical brand of anti-constitutionalism, Douglass struggles to remain radical while also engaging in the more pragmatic political debates of his time.  His growing relationship with Lincoln, both personal and ideological, is well discussed and fascinating.

The final third of the book is as poignant as is that period of Douglass’s life.  Having with the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the war achieved the goal that seemed impossible, Douglass struggles to move on to other challenges even while watching the total victory he had thought the 14thand 15thAmendments provided sip away.  This is not hagiography – Blight is clear-eyed about Douglass’s failures at the Freedman’s Bank, as Ambassador of Haiti, in his loyalty to the increasingly pro-business Republican Party and in his role with the Chicago Exhibition of 1893.  However, he generally gives great weight to Douglass’s intentions and the limitations he faces as the one black man in America from whom true greatness is always expected.  In each case one comes away with a sympathetic view of Douglass’s role in his late-life adventures.  

If Blight is every directly critical of Douglass it is in his examination of his relationship with his wife Anna.  He seems generally frustrated that Anna’s illiteracy and general shyness have rendered her historically voiceless – there is virtually no written record that directly portrays Anna’s feelings.  While Blight makes clear that Douglass remained essentially loyal to his wife, and describes in detail the effect of her death on the great man, he is also clear that Douglass turned throughout his post-escape life to more educated and articulate women – all of them white – for companionship and some form of affection. He speculates repeatedly regarding how Anna and her children might have felt about these women – who frequently came to live with Douglass and his family for months at a time – but never allows speculation to crowd out documented facts.

If I had to criticize some aspect of the book it would be its tight focus on Douglass – perhaps an unfair knock on a biography.  As Douglass spent much of his life as a professional orator, the book often falls into a catalog of places he travelled and spoke, with extensive analysis of how his various stock speeches evolved.  I would have liked a less-inward direction and more work putting this man in his social and cultural context.  There are discussions here of his relationship to Garrison, Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, WEB Dubois and Ida B. Wells to name a few.  I would have liked more about how those relationships worked within their society rather than simply focusing on what they thought of each other.

One can get a true picture of Douglass from The Narrative and from his second autobiography – My Bondage and My Freedom.  In this volume, you get a generous analysis of both of those and an independent, if clearly loving, point of reference.  Frederick Douglass led a life that is worth the effort.

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

Man came down the ladder to the plain a long time ago.  It was a slow migration, though he came only from the caves in the canyons and the tops of the mesas nearby.  There are low, broken walls on the tabletops and smoke-blackened caves in the cliffs, where still there are metates and broken bowls and ancient ears of corn, as if the prehistoric civilization had gone out among the hills for a little while and would return; and then everything would be restored to an older age, and time would have returned upon itself and a bad dream of invasion and change would have been dissolved in an hour before the dawn.  For man, too, has tenure in the land; he dwelt upon the land twenty-five thousand years ago, and his gods before him.

N. Scott Momaday's Pultizer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn is often credited for igniting a "Native American Renaissance" in literature, legitimizing the Native perspective as a valid and productive one and paving the way for later authors.  The premise mirrors Silko's Ceremony, another classic of Native American literature: a native man returns from World War II, broken and alienated, and must find a way to reconnect with his community and his history by embracing the culture of his people.

In this case, the man is Abel, who shows up one day in the town of Walatowa--better known to Anglo audiences maybe as the center of the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico--on a bus and piss-drunk.  He stays with his grandfather Francisco, but Francisco is too absorbed with his own aging and lost youth to do much for Abel.  Through the local Catholic priest--a kind of updated, fallen version of Jean Latour--Abel gets a job cutting wood for a pregnant white woman who has taken a house nearby to take advantage of the local hot springs.  The woman, Angela St. John, seduces Abel, and the sex they have represents some kind of ultimate break, for Abel, from his community.

Angela sees in Abel the instantiation of a dream she has in which she approaches a wild animal, a badger or a bear:  "He was dark and massive above her, poised and tinged with pale blue light.  And in that split second she thought again of the badger at the water, and the great bear, blue-black and blowing."  She exemplifies way that white Americans can fetishize Native Americans, but Momaday allows for the possibility of a real connection between the two.  Years later, when Abel is lying badly beaten in a Los Angeles hospital bed, she comes to comfort him.  The relationship between Natives and whites in House Made of Dawn is never clear or straightforward.  What are we meant to do, for instance, with the albino man Juan Reyes, who humiliates Abel in a traditional horse race and whom Abel ends up stabbing to death?  His pale, terrible appearance suggests the Judge of Blood Meridian, but his ethnic identity--a Native man, of white appearance, with a Hispanic name--refuses to slip int symbolism.  Is Juan Reyes only a recognition of how endlessly complex our racial categories are in practice?

Abel goes to prison; he emerges into a grim and unforgiving Los Angeles.  He's unable to find or keep steady work; he finds friends and even a romantic relationship with a white social worker, but these things are unable to fill a deep and troubling void.  Among other things, this section of the novel presents a sharp and satirical portrayal of a preacher in the Native American Church, whose pet theory is that the Bible should have ended after six words:

You see, he had lived all his life waiting for that one moment, and it came, and it took him by surprise, and it was gone.  And he said, 'In the beginning was the Word...' And, man, right then and there he should have stopped.  There was nothing more to say, but he went on.  He had said all there was to say, everything, but he went on.  'In the beginning was the Word...'  Brothers and sisters, that was the Truth, the whole of it, the essential and eternal Truth, the bone and blood and muscle of the Truth.  But he went on, old John, because he was a preacher.  The perfect vision faded from his mind, and he went on.  The instant passed, and then he had nothing but a memory.  He was desperate and confused, and in the confusion he stumbled and went on.

Words are powerful, stories are powerful--is the preacher's insistence that everything else is "fat" a claim for the power of words or a way of reducing their power by denying so many of them?  The novel also includes what is supposed to be a pretty faithful rendition of a peyote ceremony.

House Made of Dawn is not an easy book.  The first couple of sections are incredibly difficult to parse.  The section at the Pueblos is intensely sensual, descriptive; it lingers for pages over the appearance of a coming rainstorm but withholds clarity in character and action.  The next section, detailing Abel's experiences in Los Angeles, are intentionally fractured, meant to mirror the perspective of Abel, who wakes up on the beach with both his hands broken.  The third section, which is written from the point-of-view of Abel's friend and roommate Ben are much more forgiving.  It's almost as if Momaday recognized the difficulty the narrative and wished to provide an more familiar and recognizable voice, one capable of filling in the details: Abel's hands are broken because he confronted a racist policeman who harassed them.  But Ben is also comfortable in the white Anglo world, his voice comforts a reader like me but it isn't necessarily the right voice to describe Walatowa or Abel's homecoming.

And he does come home: In the end, comforted by Angela and sent back on a train to New Mexico, Abel comes home to take care of his dying grandfather, Francisco.  Momaday suggests that Abel, broken but not done in, may find his place in his community again by taking care of those who came before him.  Man, too, he reminds us, has "tenure in the land": the connection is too old and too profound to be obliterated.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

Even so, when the day's fishing was almost done, the sight of a white freighter sailing against the evening clouds on the horizon filled the boy's heart with strange emotions.  From far away the world came pressing upon him with a hugeness he had never before apprehended.  The realization of this unknown world came to him like distant thunder, now pealing from afar, now dying away into nothingness.

Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves is set on the (fictional?) fishing island of Uta-jima.  Shinji, a recent high school graduate, is a fisherman there; his mother is a traditional pearl diver.  These two jobs more or less express the way labor is divided by gender on this island, and has been for centuries.  Even the daughter of the wealthiest man on the island--whom he once had adopted, but then summoned back once his sons died, which is pretty fucked up--is a pearl diver, too.

That daughter's name is Hatsue, and Shinji, setting eyes on her for the first time, falls madly in love.  She returns his affections but others, less pure at heart, get in the way: a young ne'er-do-well named Yasuo, convinced he's entitled to Hatsue's hand in marriage because of his own wealth and status, tries to sexually assault her; a jealous girl named Chiyoko spreads a rumor that Shinji has violated Hatsue's virginity, a rumor that gets back to Hatsue's father.  The plot of the novel, which is incredibly slim and stripped down, comprises Shinji and Hatsue's struggle to be together in the face of opposing gossip.  Neither is especially clever, but Shinji is something of a holy fool, whose inherent goodness seems destined to win out in the end, and does.

The action of The Sound of Waves is always in the context of life on the island, which Mishima describes as somehow out of the reach of modern life.  Big fishing freighters pass by the island like ghosts from another world, suggesting, but not explaining, the life that Shinji might otherwise have.  In one funny scene, Shinji's brother Hiroshi goes on a school trip to Kyoto, where he goes to see a movie.  Hiroshi and his friends complain about the hard narrow seats until someone shows them how they fold down.  In Hiroshi's reflections on his trip, Mishima captures something of the strange whiplash feeling of travel: "Those gleaming streetcars and automobiles that had come upon him so suddenly, flashed by, and disappeared, those towering buildings and neon lights that had so amazed him--where were they now?"  The Sound of Waves isn't skeptical about modern or urban life, necessarily, but it does suggest that the purity and sweetness of Shinji and Hatsue's relationship is only possible on an island like this one, forgotten by time and technology.

Mishima was a weird dude: an actor and model in addition to a writer, he was also a fierce Japanese nationalist who committed suicide after leading a failed coup to help restore the Emperor.  Very little of that militarism or anger seems present here, but there's a recognizable kind of nostalgia for a nationalist past, the idyllic past as represented by Uta-jima.  As is often the case for foreign readers encountering that sort of trope, the charms of the island seemed mostly distant and opaque.  The Sound of Waves is pretty charming and subtle, but I didn't find it very memorable.