persecution

ICE BY ANNA KAVAN

Read it, they intone. Not as a distraction from the chaos but as an explanation. Everywhere you look: bodies crushed under avalanches of snow; hardy men torn apart by a substance as soft as tissue paper; babies blue, and harder than stone, ripping through the air like bullets. I have seen so many things. Awful things. They call it the end of the world. But this is not the end, this is still something. The end will be a relief. The end, the end. I’m fooling myself. There is no end. I am the cockroach. I have survived; I will survive. Soon I will be the only one left. The bitter wind that carries their voices to me will then be mute.

Read it, the cold wind says, and then you will understand. What will I understand? There is no place for that now, for the goal of understanding is progress. And we are going nowhere, not even backwards. The only movement comes from the ice and the snow, that constantly shifting, vertical and horizontal, oppression. An arctic prison, built around a void. They have public readings. For an hour or two they stop killing each other, or digging, and read together; or one reads and the others listen. The book begins, I have been told, ominously. A man is lost, hopelessly lost, and he is almost out of petrol. It is night-time, and this is telling, for isn’t the dark traditionally where danger lurks? The man drives into a petrol station and is issued a warning. A real bad freeze-up is on the way.

Read it, and all will become clear. Yet everything is murky. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? You are aware that something bad has happened, something irreversible, but details are sketchy. A ‘disaster’ is mentioned, which has ‘obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms.’ Later, it is suggested that there may have been ‘a secret act of aggression by some foreign power.’ A nuclear explosion, perhaps. Confusion, rumour, theory. The truth is you will never know. And what good is knowing anyhow? There is then, and there is now. No one in the book is named; no countries are identified either. Instability, uncertainty dominates. But you must deal in certainties, if you are to stay alive. There is the ice, and there is the girl. And these two things are connected. Of this much you can be sure.

Read it, they chant day and night, although, strictly speaking, there is no night-time anymore. There is no darkness, no rest. There is bright icelight, and no one can put it out. The earth is a giant glittering discoball. The girl. She is, the man admits, an obsession. He is infatuated; he could think only of her. In fact, the man is only really interesting in relation to how he views, treats, and thinks about, her. Throughout the book he is intent on finding her. This is, essentially, the plot: he finds the girl, and then he loses her again. He finds, he loses. He finds, he loses. It should be tedious, but it is oddly moving. And often disturbing. He wants to save her, from the disaster, from the warden.

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Read it, for the girl. She is important, of course. She has a body ‘slight as a child’s.’ It is repeatedly emphasised. Her physical immaturity, and vulnerability. She has thin and brittle wrists. She is almost weightless. She is neurotic, fearful, mostly silent. She is emotionally vulnerable too. To be frank, the repetition in the first half of the book seems artless. She is weak; she is otherwordly. You wonder how many times you need to be told. Yet you must remember that we only have access to his words, that this – like a child – is how he sees her. Isn’t it – her childish, delicate appearance – his obsession, not the author’s? The man needs her frailty, in order to justify his need to feel protective of her.

Read it, and perhaps you will make up your own mind. I don’t know. I have little interest in books. I will not yield to their demands. I simply listen and I observe. And I endure, like the cockroach that I am. There is a point in the book when the man speaks of the girl as though she is a dog. I believe that this is significant. He had to win her trust. She comes when she is called. Isn’t it the case, therefore, that he sees himself as the owner, the master, of this timid animal? The relationship between the girl and the man is not based on love, but power. He credits himself with the power to save and also the power to destroy. The girl is destroyed, or hurt, numerous times throughout the novel. By the ice. By a dragon. By the warden. By the man himself, of course. In the first half, she is repeatedly persecuted, killed. She submits to it without resistance.

Read it, and you will agree that it is a novel about systematic abuse, about victims and victimisers. This is why they like it, why it speaks to that gang out there, outside my window. It isn’t the ice, it isn’t the parallels between that and this; Anna Kavan could not see into the future, she did not predict what was going to happen. Not even they believe that. It speaks to their now unleashed desire to crush and maim those who are weaker than they are. If the world is a nightmare, if unreality is reality, then anything is permissible. The girl wasn’t born to be a victim, she was trained, you might say, by her mother, who kept her ‘in a permanent state of frightened subjection.’ And as a victim she needs the man, and the warden, as much as they, as the victimisers, need her; they sustain each other.

Read it, they demand, not once, but repeatedly, until the words become your words. Bearing all this in mind, you understand the man’s actions, his mission, differently; he is not simply searching for the girl, he is stalking her. He is a sadist. He finds her bruises ‘madly attractive.’ He argues that her ‘timidity and fragility seems to invite callousness.’ He derives an ‘indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer.’ And you, as the reader, feel complicit because you enjoy it too – when the ice overwhelms her, when it entraps her – as these are the moments when Kavan’s writing truly astonishes. It is beautiful only in these moments. Her death: over and over again. I don’t know if that was intentional.

Read it aloud, so that those who are within earshot can also be redeemed. The ice! The ice! Sometimes I feel as though it lives, it breathes, and we are simply performing rituals, and sacrifices, in order to please it. You can draw comparisons between the girl and Kavan herself; both silver-haired, both with mother issues. The author was a heroin addict, and the girl’s appearance is certainly consistent with that. Thin, pale. And the ice, of course, and the snow, which engulfs, and entraps. You might argue that this – the ice – is her addiction; that it is the drug that is destroying her. There is a dragon, remember. A dragon. The level of self pity, and self-obsession, is incredible. To write a novel about one’s own destruction and link it to the fate of the world. No, I find that the most uninteresting theory of all.

Read it, study it, and memorise it. Almost all copies were submerged under the ice. What we have has been rewritten, from one or two master copies. Still, teams of men and women are excavating as I speak, chipping away at the glass that mirrors their toil. An Original is precious. It could buy you life, or death. I prefer the latter. The man is dreaming, terrible dreams; they are a side effect of the drugs he takes. He admits this early on. There is no mystery. The girl is ‘the victim I used in my dreams for my own enjoyment.’ Case closed. There is reality and lucidity; there is unreality and hallucination. The warden with his ‘vicious scowl’, his ‘aura of danger.’ The man and the warden [and her husband] are the same man. The man and the warden and the ice. The black hand. The dragon. All one and the same. Am I spoiling things? Who am I spoiling it for? You all know the book better than I do, for I have never even glanced at a page.

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THE GOLD-RIMMED SPECTACLES BY GIORGIO BASSANI

Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is one of the greatest Italian novels; more so it is one of the greatest holocaust novels, not because it documents or lingers over, as many of them do, the persecution suffered by certain groups of people at the hands of the Nazis or the horror of the camps etc, but because it presents a beautiful, elegiac story of adolescent romance and then points at it and says: this, this is what the Fascists were so hell bent on destroying. Being so impressed by that book [his most well-known] I was eager to read more of Bassani’s work; this one, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, is not only considered to be one of his very best, if not the best, but is also part of the Ferrara Cycle, a series of loosely inter-linked novels to which The Garden of the Finzi-Continis also belongs.

Without wishing to jump right in with the negatives I can certainly say that The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is not the equal of Bassani’s most famous novel. It does, however, have much in common with it. First of all, the book has the same wistfully melancholic, nostalgic tone. While The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is centred around the title family, this one is concerned with Doctor Fadigati, a successful man, but a lonely man, and a homosexual. I really liked the opening of the book, which tells of his arrival in Ferrara and early lofty status amongst the locals, and, subsequently, the rumours concerning his private life. I especially enjoyed what Bassani had to say about how the people of Ferrara were none too concerned about his homosexuality, it being at least something, something concrete, after years of speculation. The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is also like its more renowned bigger brother in that it appears to be about one thing – something local, domestic –  but, in the background, there looms a larger, more politically-charged theme, which is its real focus.

It is the point at which Fadigati makes friends with a group of students on a train that the novel starts to go awry for me. To some extent I can understand why the doctor moves from the empty second class carriage to the students’ third class carriage; it speaks, of course, of Fadigati’s loneliness. Here is a man who never got married, who hides his liaisons, if indeed there are any, from the general public and so, the implication is, he lacks company on a regular basis. Yet, I can’t help but find Fadigati’s behaviour creepy, although I am not convinced that is what the author intended. Earlier in the book, Bassani makes a point of explaining how Fadigati keeps himself to himself, so why does he, in effect, impose his company on a group mostly made up of young boys? I imagine some of you might be rolling your eyes, seeing in this some subtle form of homophobia. That is not the case. I have no issue with homosexuality, but I do have issues with anyone, male or female, straight or gay, hanging around a bunch of people half their age. As I said, I’m not sure this creepiness is intentional; you could argue that Bassani simply wanted to find a way to bring together the narrator and the doctor, and this was his solution. In any case, it has, for me, unfortunate consequences for the story, it takes it in a direction that does not sit well with the idea that Fadigati is a sympathetic character.

An even bigger concern, for me, is that Fadigati takes one of the students as a lover. This is a problem in two ways. Firstly, it exacerbates the creepiness I spoke about in the previous paragraph; it makes, again I think unintentionally, Fadigati seem like some kind of sexual predator. Look, I’m not saying that the boy in question did not know his own mind, and he is legally of age, but, still, one cannot overlook the fact that it is Fadigati who forces his company on the group in the beginning [which is, in fact, something that he does more than once throughout the story, always with younger people] and seeks to ingratiate himself with them. The second problem I have with the relationship is that, according to the author, Fadigati was discreet, in terms of his private life, so much so that the locals in Ferrara found no evidence of who he was seeing despite him living amongst them for a decade. And yet we are meant to believe that this man, this paragon of discretion, will suddenly take up with a young boy and flaunt the affair in public, will take him on holiday and buy him a car etc. Fadigati’s character is way too inconsistent for him to be believable, and far too odd to be sympathetic.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the work are the parallels the author invites us to draw between homosexuality and being a Jew under a Fascist government. Bassani was both a Jew and a homosexual so it is difficult to accuse him of making light of anti-semitism, and I can certainly understand his point, but for me there is really no comparison. Fadigati is whispered about and subtly ostracised, he is looked upon as something other, something not normal, and you can see how Jews in Ferrara are treated in a similar manner. However, that Fadigati is whispered about, and looked down upon, for dating a boy half his age, for essentially buying his affections, is hardly akin to persecuting someone on the basis of their race or religion. Whether you believe that Fadigati has done something wrong or not, and I think even these days many would find his behaviour distasteful, one cannot complain about being whispered and gossiped about, and even excluded by others, when you do something that is clearly, predictably, going to upset people. You cannot, for me, start an affair with someone significantly younger than yourself and pay for their company and not expect a backlash. I dunno, maybe I am being harsh, but the two situations seem completely different to me, because Fadigati freely chooses his partner [although he doesn’t, of course, choose his sexuality], and he is therefore at least partly responsible for what happens to him [which is not the same as saying he deserves it]. Having said all that, I did enjoy the book. It’s not great by any means, and I would struggle to recommend it, but Bassani was a stylish and evocative writer and I don’t think I will ever tire of reading about his Ferrara.

BELOVED BY TONI MORRISON

You know, sometimes I just don’t get other readers. I can’t relate to their reactions, their expectations, their way of looking at things. Take Beloved, a book that I have only ever part read, having given up about a third of the way into it. Reaction to the book seems to be about evenly split between those who hate it and those who love it. Which is fine, of course. Yet the haters appear to base their antipathy on the subject matter; they, according to the reviews I’ve read, have a problem with someone writing about slavery; they compose their reviews metaphorically throwing their hands around in wild fashion as if to keep this objectionable topic away. It’s as though Morrison was trying to convert them to Catholicism or something. I can’t get my head around it at all. Their argument, as far as I can gather, is that slavery was, y’know, a long time ago and we’re now entirely inclusive and lovely towards all people and so writing about it is tantamount to trying to make us [by which I mean white people] feel guilty for something that 1. we didn’t ourselves do and 2. we can’t control i.e. the colour of our skin. Honestly, go look on Goodreads; I’m not making this shit up.

What do you say to ignorant crap like that? Part of me would prefer to say nothing because I find it exhausting arguing against such obviously flawed reasoning. But if I was forced to respond I might well state, first of all, that, uh, racism does actually still exist. And so the subject is, er, not entirely irrelevant. Secondly, even if it didn’t exist in our society, even if we were all living in multi-cultural hippy communes, what exactly would be wrong with someone writing about slavery and persecution? I might be wrong of course [I’m not], but I’m pretty sure Morrison didn’t put the necessary effort and time into writing a book just to make some twat in Milton Keynes feel guilty. If you ask me, I’d guess that it may be that, as a black woman, as a human being, she would be interested in exploring and understanding such a pivotal and lamentable part of [her/our] history.

For me, the point of writing a book like Beloved is to elevate a terrible part of history beyond mere statistics. Like with the holocaust, it’s easy sometimes to get lost in numbers, to forget that individual people were affected or perished. Beloved personalises slavery, which makes it easier for people-in-general to identify with the subject. I would say that is very important. As far as I’m concerned, we should not be allowed to forget, to push these things under the carpet. You cannot live in a vacuum, where history is meaningless except for passing exams and making a HBO mini-series. This stuff is part of who you are and continues to play a role in how the world, your world, works. And, yeah, I know what people say, which is that there are plenty of tragedies not given the same status, or attention; these people ask, why aren’t we talking about what happened in Bosnia, Serbia, Nigeria, etc? My response: stop whinging and write a book about those places/conflicts/tragedies, then.

However, I did, of course, quit Beloved without finishing it, although my doing so, my quitting, obviously had nothing to do with white guilt; my issues with the novel aren’t political ones, but, rather, they are bookish ones. I didn’t feel as though Toni Morrison was preaching at me, but I did feel as though the book was too heavy-handed and overwrought, and even cringingly trite and saccharine. In fact, the thing struck me as something like what Faulkner might have produced had you plied him full of E and asked him to write a chick-lit novel. And, well, that ain’t good, yo.

Just consider this line:

“Jump, if you want to, ‘cause I’ll catch you, girl. I’ll catch you ‘fore you fall.”

And this:

“He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.”

The most polite thing I can say about those two quotes [and I’m really trying to be polite] is that neither strike me as good writing.

What about this:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”

I mean….dear God. And the thing is, I totally agree with the sentiment of almost everything in the above passage; it’s the presentation of that sentiment that bothers me.

Every sentence in Beloved aches [or creaks] with emotion, with meaning and significance; and, for me, the impact of the story, and the full horror of the subject that Morrison was dealing with, was compromised by that. Cards on the table, I found the book entirely ridiculous. There’s a weird tension between the florid style, the sentimentality, and the subject matter and some of the content; it is a book that screams excess; everything is taken just a bit too far; Morrison displays a distinct inability to rein in it, and a lack of subtlety and control. So, one minute we’re getting told about how breast milk was forcibly harvested from Sethe, the next she and Paul D are sharing a tender moment, as he feels up the scars on her back and rambles on poetically-symbolically about a tree.Throughout my reading, I wanted on almost every page to tell her: tone it down, and let the story breathe a bit; I wanted to chide her: you’re trying too hard. I felt as though some of her choices weren’t made in order to serve the story, but because she was trying to impress. Ironically, for someone who, I think I am correct in saying, teaches or taught English literature or creative writing, I would say that she needed advice and guidance herself. Someone needed to look at the manuscript and take a red pen to it, with little notes in the margin saying is this necessary? 

Probably the most glaring misstep in the novel occurs long after I gave up on it. Struggling badly to overcome my reservations about the quality of what I was reading, I had a look at some online reviews. It was then that I came across the opinions outlined in my initial paragraphs, but it was also then that I found out that the baby – the ghost baby, the slaughtered baby – at some point in the novel, apparently, is heard in the text; by which I mean that we have access to its thoughts or words. And, I, ah, I dunno about you, but that just seems ludicrous to me; it’s almost akin to gross incompetence or mishandling of your material. Why on earth would you do that? The fate of that child speaks loudly enough, all Toni Morrison is doing by giving it a voice [a stream of consciousness voice, I believe] is cranking up the melodrama to 1000. And I had a thought upon that discovery, a thought that ran: I’m not reading all this to get there.