race

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVES BY BORIS VIAN

At one time I would actively avoid pain and unhappiness, torture and murder, in my reading. I called those who sought out that kind of thing literary ambulance chasers. And yet over the last twelve months I have found myself increasingly indulging in it too, even though it still disturbs and upsets me. I justified it to myself as a newly developed interest in the history of outré, extreme or anti literature, and the decadent, erotic and gothic genres; and while that interest is genuine I didn’t ask myself why, or what motivated it. Then, as I read Boris Vian’s discomforting I Spit On Your Graves, it occurred to me that it is, at least to some extent, because I am, and have been for over a year, deeply unhappy myself. In part, this is due to my personal circumstances, but I’m also angry and hurt by what is happening in the world at large. While I still feel compassion for others, I now realise that I am probably drawn to books that confirm this negative world view, the view that people are essentially full of shit and life is mostly viciousness, pettiness, vapidity and suffering.

“Nobody knew me at Buckton. That’s why Clem picked the place; besides, even if I hadn’t had a flat, I didn’t have enough gas to get any farther north. Just about a gallon. I had a dollar, and Clem’s letter, and that’s all. There wasn’t a thing worth a damn in my valise, so let’s not mention it. Hold on: I did have in the bag the kid’s little revolver, a miserable, cheap little .22 caliber pea-shooter.”

These days, Boris Vian is most well-known for the cute, some would say twee, love story L’Écume des jours. He wrote I Spit On Your Graves, which as previously suggested is decidedly not cute nor twee, in two weeks as a genre exercise. On face value, it is a passable, better than average, and certainly readable, example of hard-boiled noir in which a man arrives in a town and seeks to take revenge upon some of the inhabitants for the murder of his younger brother. The narrator, Lee Anderson, is engagingly, typically, broad-shouldered and mean; and the supporting cast also conform to expectations, which is to say that the men are hard-drinkers and the women – who make up the majority – are hot-to-trot. Moreover, while Vian didn’t have the best ear for noir dialogue and one-liners, there are a few memorable wise-cracks, such as when Lee says of Dexter’s father that he was ‘the sort of man you feel like smothering slowly with a pillow’ or when he is asked what he intends to do with the Asquith sisters and he replies that ‘any good looking girl is worth doing something with.’

What makes Anderson, and therefore the book as a whole, unusual is that he is a black man who looks like a white man. Nearly all noir is political, because it is so class conscious; it deals almost exclusively with the lower – a word I use economically, not necessarily morally – elements of society and with crime. However, not often, or certainly not when the book was written, is race a factor. In I Spit On Your Graves, race is used, first of all, as a motivation for murder, as Anderson’s brother was killed by white people and it is white people upon whom he wants revenge. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is also used as a weapon. Anderson is able to pass amongst the whites because he looks like them. Using the stealth of his appearance, he targets two young, local white girls, who he intends to bed and then dispose of. Crucially, he wants them to know that they were fucked by a black man before he kills them, as he believes that this will horrify them.

002d4b3b.jpeg

It is worth pointing out before going any further that the book was originally published under the name Vernon Sullivan. This was not, moreover, an ordinary pseudonym. In a move that put him in the same position as his central character, Vian – a white Frenchman – took on the disguise of a black American, going so far as to pen a preface in which Sullivan outlines the intention or philosophy behind his work. That Vian would not want his own name associated with the book is not surprising, as a story this controversial and relentlessly grim might have been career suicide. However, I feel as though his decision to use a persona, especially that of a black man, was an unfortunate one. First of all, if you are going to write something like I Spit On Your Graves, in which I imagine Vian believed he was making serious, important points about his society, you ought to have the balls to claim it as your own, and not try and palm it off on the very elements of that society that you feel are unjustly treated. Secondly, using Vernon Sullivan strikes me as an attempt to give his opinions and ideas authenticity, as though he understood himself that a successful white Frenchman speaking for disenfranchised black America suggests a lamentable, almost offensive, level of arrogance.

In his preface, Vian has Sullivan express his contempt for the ‘good nigger, those that the white people tapped affectionately on the back in literature.’ He goes on to explain his intention to write a novel in which ‘negroes’ are shown to be as tough as white men. And, well, while I understand what Vian was getting at, vis-a-vis a patronising attitude towards black people in literature, he doesn’t show Lee Anderson to be merely tough, but rather he shows him to be all the stereotypes that were/are expected of a black male. He is athletically built, criminal, violent and sex obsessed. There is barely a paragraph that goes by in which the narrator is not lusting after one young teenage girl or other. Sex is – far more than revenge, or his brother, or injustice – almost all he thinks about. Furthermore, one also has to ask why all the girls that Anderson sleeps with, and in some cases rapes, are underage. I struggled to understand the relevance of that. It felt seedy, nasty, and pointless. To have made them of age, in their twenties for example, would not have altered the story at all, except to make it marginally less disturbing. But maybe that was the point: Vian wanted his novel to be as unpleasant as possible, but to what end I do not know.

Advertisements

THE LOVER BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was fifteen. For the first time I wondered what others saw, when they looked. Those eyes, those lips. They aren’t so bad, I thought. Pleasing, could be worse. Soft and feminine, like my mother’s only dress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting approval, or attention. Not yet. It was simply an experiment. Just like it was two years later, with L. I was at a funeral. I had been noticed, she told my mother afterwards. Or words to that effect. Everyone noticed me that day, for I didn’t cry. Without the distorting ugliness of grief, she noticed. Those eyes, those lips. She validated the fifteen year old. L. was twenty-nine then. She became my first lover. My first lover without love. There have been many since. Too many, perhaps.

“He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.”

The Lover by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984, when the author was seventy years old. Everything that I had read, or heard, about the novel prior to picking it up had led me to believe that it was a largely autobiographical account of a love affair between a young girl and a significantly older man. As I become increasingly mired in my memories, this of course appealed to me, bearing in mind my own experience. I wanted to compare notes. Yet while it is fair to say that the relationship is central to the book’s action it certainly isn’t its true focus. It is more the case that it is used to illustrate or highlight other, more important, or more interesting, themes or ideas.

The novel begins with the narrator telling an anecdote about an unknown man approaching her in the present and declaring: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you you’re more beautiful now.’ He prefers her face ‘ravaged,’ he says. One is immediately drawn to that ‘everyone’. It suggests something romantic. A once popular and dazzling beauty. One believes that one now understands his motivation. Her man. The lover. However, everything that the narrator writes about her physical self as a child gives lie to these conjectures. Indeed, she seems at pains to emphasise, if not her unattractiveness, then the unconventional nature of her appearance.

The hat is part of it, of course. The gentleman’s hat she wears almost at all times. But there are the clothes ‘that make people laugh’ too; the dresses she wears ‘as if they were sacks, with belts that take away their shape.’ Her appeal, it is made clear, has little to do with traditional feminine charms. Her body is ‘thin, undersized almost.’ No, this is no dazzling beauty. And yet he is dazzled. One of the questions The Lover makes you ask is, what is the basis of someone’s attractiveness? What makes this wealthy man ‘adore’ the young, tomboyish, white girl? The author herself writes: ‘I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think.’

Yet this is, of course, not an answer. Is there an enigmatic something? An essence. An attitude. Or is it, in this instance, her race? One cannot ignore that. The man cannot ignore that either. It makes him nervous. His hand trembles. ‘He’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he trembles,’ she states. He is dressed in European clothes. He smokes an English cigarette. He has spent time in Paris. He doesn’t, one presumes, want a Chinese girl. No, he wants this white girl. Or a white girl, perhaps. Exotic. Other. Or could it be that she gives the impression of being sexually available, and this supersedes all other considerations? She has a face for pleasure at fifteen, we are told, and there are certainly numerous hints at there being a business element to her relationship with the man.

0269607_23707_MC_Tx360 (1).jpg

Her brother is said to have attempted to prostitute her, for example. And for the mother, and the narrator herself, her appearance is that of a child whore. The ‘transparent’ dress, let’s not forget. It is never explicitly stated that the man, the lover, pays for her company, but money is at the forefront of the relationship. The girl’s family is poor. Poverty is ‘the ruling principle’ of their lives. The hat speaks to that too. ‘The only thing left is the girl,’ her mother thinks, ‘perhaps one day she’ll find out how to bring in some money.’ The man is rich, as I have said, and interested, and ‘the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money.’ When he meets the family he is expected to take them to expensive restaurants, of course.

But the man is, I believe, less of a client, and more of a distraction and a comfort. A distraction from the family. From the poverty. From herself. For she is afraid of herself, she says. Her elder brother, the one who wanted to prostitute her, also tried to rape the housemaid. He is a man of ‘cold insulting violence.’ The girl, quite naturally, wants to kill him. Her mother is a depressive, and all around her are ‘wildernesses, wastes.’ Her sons. Her whore of a daughter. Her own failures. She attempts to breed chickens, but she bungles it and they are born unable to eat. They die of starvation. This is symbolic, of course. A family of stone. They feel ‘a fundamental shame at having to live.’ The younger brother’s heart gives out. Dead. His heart gives out, of course. This is symbolic too. The man, then, the weak Chinese, with his ‘supreme elegance,’ is a distraction from all this, and a comfort. In love, in sex ‘the waste is covered over and all is swept away.’

“When it’s in a book I don’t think it’ll hurt any more …exist any more. One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.”

When she grows older she will write. She does write, of course. We know. I wrote myself that The Lover is not about love, not really about a love affair. It isn’t. It is about many things, but not really that. Ultimately, it is, I’d argue, most of all about memory and writing. The book unfolds in a non-linear fashion. What of a story there is, one must piece together. As she must piece it together. In her mind. On paper. She admits, at one stage, to not knowing which shoes she was wearing at a particular moment. Yet she always wore a certain pair, and so of course it is those shoes she was wearing. She guesses. It doesn’t matter. She uses the image of her own son, years later, to describe herself as a girl. Memories superimposed upon memories. To tell the truth one must not worry about what is true. I know.

I BURN PARIS BY BRUNO JASIENSKI

Her name is Laure. And the place is Paris. Her name, which she dislikes because of its ubiquity in that city, was given to her by her parents precisely for that reason: so that she would fit in. I met her in Le Piano Vache, a bar on Rue Laplace. With a typical male predatory instinct, I waited until her friend had gone to the toilet before approaching her. When I introduced myself she laughed at l’englishman ivre. Her voice was like the tinkling of small bells; when I heard it I felt as though I was being called to worship. I told her she was beautiful; she told me she was Algerian. I did not understand.

In Paris, she said, there is no solidarity. You would not love me; and I could not love you. I am not French here; not Parisian. Only to you I am. She sounded gay; I suspected that she could not sound anything but gay. They are obsessed and now I am obsessed too, and it is because we are all scared. The way she told it there was no Paris at all, only a number of independent communities or small states eyeing each other suspiciously, each convinced that the others are intent on killing them. She made it sound like a large-scale Mexican stand-off, one that would inevitably descend into bloody chaos when the strain of inaction became too much to bear.

14380101_522538971279067_8142870911161041578_o.jpg

I took Laure out once. She was right, we were destined not to love each other; but not for the reason she had envisioned. I had to return to England, of course; and, although we stayed in touch for a while, eventually she became just another in a series of my life’s small, but still painful endings. However, what she said to me that first night still plays on my mind; it troubled me that someone could feel that way, could live feeling despised and dispossessed in the city that they ought to be able to call home. Motivated by a desire to explore, or indulge, these thoughts and feelings, I initially picked up Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris, but, for all its virtues, its light and airy tone was like eating candyfloss; it upset my stomach with its sugary sweetness.

Yet with literature, much like with music, there is, if you look long enough, or know where to look, always something out there to suit your mood; whatever your feelings, whatever your ideas, someone else will have had them before you and fixed them on paper. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before I came upon Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris. First published in 1928, the novel, which was apparently met with a fair amount of controversy when it saw the light of day, ostensibly deals with an outbreak of plague in the French capital. As one would expect, the spread of the disease results in Paris being essentially quarantined by the authorities. But more interesting than this is the effect it has on the general population, not physically but psychologically.

“Left to their own devices, the police found themselves for the first time in a troublesome quandary. Suddenly stripped of the compass of the law, unable to decide which of the emergent governments should be considered lawful, and realizing the fictitiousness of any government outside the ring of the cordon, the unemployed blue people swiftly came to realize that they were less real creatures with every passing day, becoming metaphysical fiction.”

We are, of course, all aware that one day we will cease to exist, but for many of us this knowledge is stored away in one of the least accessible corners of our minds as we carry on with our mundane lives. A tragedy such as a plague epidemic, however, makes this impossible, and Jasieński’s novel includes some impressive writing about what it is like to make sustained eye contact with almost certain death. My favourite passage in this regard involves the rich American David Lingslay who is said to safeguard the ‘wretched formulation of hope, that one percent chance of salvation, somewhere deep inside him, like a nestling coddled in his bosom.’ There is, moreover, also the suggestion that some of the inhabitants of Paris consider themselves to be, in a sense, superior to the disease. The Jews, for example, believe it to be a punishment that has ‘descended upon Aryan Paris for their centuries of oppressing the Jewish nation’, and, as such, they – the Jews – will naturally be ‘spared’.

While for the Jews the catastrophe is arrogantly deemed to be a sign of favour, others actively seek to use it to their advantage. Indeed, according to the author, the plague ‘levelled social stratification,’ such that Lingslay cannot, despite the ‘gravity of his surname’, arrange to leave the city. As a consequence of this levelling, this shuffling of the cards, men like Captain Solomin, an emigre Russian, who had been working as a taxi driver prior to the outbreak, are able to gain power and prestige. Similarly, the communists view the plague, not necessarily as a punishment for certain groups, but as a convenient, welcome, event that will eradicate, or at least weaken, their enemies  – the bourgeoisie – and give them a chance to create a proletariat, communist Paris.

What ought to be clear at this point is that Jasieński’s vision, his take on humanity and its impulses and behaviour, has much in common with Laure’s. When faced with this hardship, these difficulties, the people of Paris, in both the novel and the experience of my friend, do not come together, they move even further apart. In fact, in I Burn Paris there is an organised division, i.e recognised independent city-states are created, some along racial  or national lines – Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Anglo-American, etc – and others social. Once this separation takes place, these groups indulge their prejudices or biases; the opposing city-states become other and therefore something to be feared, denigrated, ridiculed and ultimately eradicated. ‘Russians are savages’, one character thinks to himself, and one cannot but see in this the similarly absolute, and similarly misguided, belief that ‘Muslims are terrorists.’

“Your science, of which you are so proud and which we travel here to study, is not a system of tools to help man conquer nature, but rather to help Europe conquer non-Europe, to exploit weaker continents. This is why we despise your Europe and why we come here to study you so fervently. Only by mastering the achievements of your science will we be able to shed the yoke of your oppression.”

In the small number of reviews of that I have encountered there seemed to be an emphasis upon the important role of socialist politics in the book, even to the point of suggesting that it is a kind of [sometimes morally dubious] anti-capitalist manifesto. However, I find it difficult to reconcile this view with what I read. Certainly, there is discussion of socialist politics and concerns, and Pierre, who sets the story in motion, is made redundant as a result of France’s ‘lousy economic condition.’ Yet while you might argue that unemployment is responsible for the plague, that it motivates Pierre to act, Jasieński makes it clear that, to quote his own first line, things that are ‘private in nature’ are equally or more significant. For me, the first section of I Burn Paris is, at heart, about jealousy. Yes, Pierre loses his job, but he also loses Jeanette, and, for the remainder of his life, sees her, or imagines her, in the company of other men everywhere he goes.

To his credit, the author avoids lazy moralising by giving depth to, or breathing some life into, his characters. For example, the adult P’an Tsiang-kuei is a psychopathic communist, who thinks nothing of killing for the greater good [where have we heard that before?]; but we are also allowed access to his backstory, his history, as a mistreated orphan. We come to see how he became what he is, and it felt kosher to me. I believed it, and I believed in P’an. In Jasieński’s world, as in the real world, there are no absolute villains [or heroes]. People frequently do bad things, but in most cases one understands their motivations, even if one does not agree with the resulting act or behaviour. Another example of this is when a Japanese deliberately infects the man who ordered the death of his wife. Indeed, I Burn Paris is full of wonderful, often moving, minor portraits; and this is, I believe, its greatest strength. ‘You cannot feel concern for everyone,’ Jasieński writes at one point, and yet his own work goes some way to disproving this statement.

SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH BY TAYEB SALIH

A while ago I was in heated conversation with a man, a British man, about the subject of immigration and asylum, and at the end of this conversation he said something like ‘obviously coming here is better for you lot.’ It became clear to me at that point that he was under the impression that I wasn’t English. It is better for me and my kind? Better in what way, sir? ‘Nicer, not like where you came from.’ Putting aside the insignificant detail that I am actually English, the suggestion was that uprooting yourself and moving to a different country, a superior and more civilised country[!], is always an entirely positive endeavour. It is the unfortunate locals who have to put up with us – and our weird rituals, food, smell, etc. – and whose jobs we steal – that one ought to consider and sympathise with.

Perspective is a strange thing. There are some that appear incapable of seeing things through the eyes of others, who seemingly cannot comprehend that one’s cultural practices and values – i.e. what seems right and normal to you – are subjective, are related to your upbringing and experiences; and that to someone else, who has had a different upbringing and experiences, your practices and values may seem equally absurd or immoral. It strikes me that were I to have told this man – who, I am sure, wasn’t trying to offend me – that actually many people who come to England prefer their home countries, and in some cases did not want to come here at all, and that for them this – being in England – is not akin to winning the lottery, but often a sad, yet necessary event, he would not have believed me. Because, well, being a foreigner, my word is hardly the most reliable, is it?

“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.”

Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North begins with a return, with the unnamed narrator, or partial narrator, discussing his arrival in the ’obscure’ village of his birth after seven years abroad, in England. He returned, he says, with ‘a great yearning’ for his people; he had ‘longed for them, had dreamed of them.’ At home, he re-familiarises himself with ’the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my childhood and the onset of adolescence’ and the unique sound of the wind as it passes through palm trees. There are so many novels written from the European perspective, that focus on what it is like, as a European, to visit such a place, and the majority of them accentuate the hostility or strangeness of the landscape and people, and so it is refreshing to read something that provides an alternative point of view, one that is positive and loving. For the narrator this is where he has his roots, and where he feels once again as though he has ‘a purpose.’

6e48723e58d30815e796d5f51031edf2.jpg

While there is much in the village that is familiar, there is one thing, a man, that is new and unknown, and, perhaps because he stands out in this way, the narrator is excessively curious about who he is and why or how he came to be there. I use the word excessively, because, at least initially, Mustafa Sa’eed does nothing to raise suspicion; he, we’re told, ‘kept himself to himself,’ and always showed extreme politeness, as one would naturally expect of someone who has moved to a new place. In this way, Salih subtly probes the concept of ’the outsider,’ for even in a village of men of the same race, religion, etc, Mustafa Sa’eed is viewed as not quite ‘one of them.’ However, one day he mentions that he has a secret, and it is this secret that provides Season of Migration to the North with one of its two compelling central storylines.

When the two men get together to discuss the secret, Mustafa Sa’eed begins by relating some details of his childhood, details that, I think, say much about his character and give strong hints as to his future behaviour. He was, he says, essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased; he had no father, and his mother was emotionally distant. Of more significance, he describes himself as emotionally distant also. When he is given a place at a school in Cairo he leaves home with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and later admits to feeling no gratitude towards those who help him. Indeed, the more the highly intelligent, but strangely cold Mustafa Sa’eed says, the more it becomes clear, long before the big reveal, that he is at least a sociopath, but probably a psychopath. In this way, the novel could have become simply another in a seemingly endless line of existential dramas focussing on intense, disturbed loners – such as Camus’ Mersault or Sabato’s Juan Pablo Castel – and their terrible crimes, and on the most basic level it is one of those, but it is also much more besides.

I flippantly said to someone the other day that Tayeb Salih must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic literary powers. This, I joked, was the only explanation for what he was able to achieve in Season of Migration to the North in approximately 130 pages. However, I am going to overlook, or only briefly touch upon, many of the complex and challenging themes and ideas present in the novel, not because I am not interested in them, but simply because I have to maintain control over my work and not allow it, as I said in a previous review, to mutate into a dissertation. Therefore, although colonisation, and the effect upon those who are subjected to it, certainly underpins much of the action I am going to leave it for others to tackle, aware that this is generally what reviewers focus upon. I, on the other hand, prefer to look at the more controversial, or uncomfortable, elements of the book.

“He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis” and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.”

For large parts of Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih investigates and challenges liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, attitudes towards sex and race; indeed, the nature of Mustafa Sa’eed’s ‘villainy’ is both sexual and racial, and even political [but, as stated, I am not going to linger over that]. When he moved to England his chief aim was to bed as many white women as possible, in the process playing up to the stereotype, and playing upon the fear of conservative white Europeans, of the savage, sex-obsessed invading African black male. Yet Salih takes this one stage further, for the women who succumb to his charms do so with his race, and the accompanying stereotypes, at the forefront of their minds, even when they believe that they are dismissing it or ‘accepting’ of it.

For example, one woman appears to be under the impression that Mustafa has just crawled out of the jungle, wearing a loincloth and smelling of mangoes. For her, this fantasy, which he encourages, adds an exotic flavour, an alien quality, something quixotic, to the proceedings. Another of the women imagines herself, and calls herself, Sa’eed’s slave, a woman who wants to be dominated, of course, and who clearly associates the subjugation of women with Arab culture. Words and phrases such as ‘savage bull’ and ‘cannibal’ are thrown around; and Jean Morris outright calls this ‘showpiece black man’ ugly. Yet, once again, Salih wasn’t satisfied with presenting only one side, for he makes it clear that Sa’eed also finds the novelty of these kind of couplings exciting [he comments on their bronze skin and the intoxicating but strange ‘European smell’]. All sexes, all cultures, all races can experience the allure of ‘the other.’ This is fascinating, thrilling stuff.

The only criticism I have to make of the novel, which is as beautifully written as it is brave, is in relation to the murder of Jean Morris, which is preposterously melodramatic, although I guess it is purposely reminiscent of the conclusion of Othello. Regardless, this act is not, for me, the most heinous in the novel, nor is this death [or Sa’eed’s fate] the most tragic. Throughout Season of Migration to the North one is led to believe that the European women, with their sexual rights and freedom to choose [even a black man], are a symbol of modernity or modern attitudes. In contrast, when the aged lothario Wad Reyyes falls in ‘love’ [which for him is the same as lust] with Hosna Bint Mahmoud, who outright refuses him, he declares, ‘She will marry me no matter what you or she says.’ In this village, he continues, men make the decisions. In short, Reyyes wants to fuck the woman, and so she will be fucked. However, when he, with great violence, attempts to take her by force, and Bint Mahmoud follows through on her promise to kill Reyyes and herself, one comes to realise that it is she who is the modern woman, not the so-called liberal, free Europeans. Why? Because Bint Mahmoud kills to make a statement, to say no when no is not permitted.

NATIVE SON BY RICHARD WRIGHT

So far in my life I have dated girls from a variety of racial backgrounds, including black, asian and oriental. For someone who is almost oppressively cynical it is perhaps surprising that I entered each relationship with a certain level of naivety. Despite being well aware that racism still exists, I didn’t expect the amount of negative attention these relationships received. One incident always comes to my mind, which is the time I and my black girlfriend were accosted by a group of black teenagers one afternoon; the kids seemed to be incredibly upset by this coupling, which they perceived as an affront, and so they started to follow us and shout insults [racist insults, no less!]. I’m not entirely certain how we managed to get out of it without the incident turning violent and still now, some time later, I feel uneasy when passing a group of similar kids on my own.

Yet, it wasn’t only overt racism that was the problem. More pertinently, in terms of what I found most interesting about the book under review here, there was the endlessly in[s]ane behaviour and comments from people who were well-intentioned. People were so petrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, of being politically incorrect, or were trying too hard not to be politically correct [because they felt this was also insulting], that they made themselves and everyone around them uncomfortable. Having had these experiences my reading of Native Son has retrospectively been enriched. Obviously, I am not saying my experiences are comparable to the brutal and systematic racism that, historically, people of certain races have been subjected to, nor are they similar to what happens in Wright’s novel, which is itself extreme, but that they are, for someone who cares nothing for all this will-to-power bullshit, a reminder of just how much tension and weirdness still surrounds this issue.

I read the book a couple of years ago, but, as I remember it, the central character, Bigger Thomas, is a touchy, listless, youth who is given a job with an affluent white family. The head of the family is well-known for his benevolent attitude towards the black population, and so Bigger appears to have got himself a good gig. Of course, from our perspective the idea that the white man is to be applauded for giving a black young man some menial work makes us wriggle a bit in our skin, and Bigger’s lack of gratitude is telling. In any case, things go well enough for Bigger until the man’s daughter takes an interest in him. She makes an effort to talk to him, to be his friend, despite Bigger’s desire to be left alone to do his job as he is employed to do it. And it was this, this exploration of woolly-headed, well meaning, liberal white attitudes, and how at odds their desires are with what Bigger wants, that really made the novel for me.

There is such complex psychology involved in these exchanges, in terms of the girl who thinks she is helping Bigger but who is really jeopardising his job, who believes she cares about the plight of black people in America, and Bigger in particular, but who really is exacerbating the problem, and treating him with an arrogant lack of consideration, by not respecting his wishes; her behaviour, as with a lot of so-styled well-meaning liberals, is really directed at herself not at the person or group she purports to want to help; her actions are born out of self-obsession, out of a desire to make herself feel good. As for Bigger, he doesn’t want to be anyone’s dogsbody, of course, no one does, and so he is not reticent to respond to her friendly advances because he loves his job, but because he is aware that a friendship, a true friendship, with the girl is impossible even if he desired it. There is a powerful scene in a cafe or restaurant when Bigger is all but forced to eat with the girl and her boyfriend; his discomfort, and his shame, is palpable; the couple, however, are having a whale of time and think themselves to be wonderfully open-minded. Elegant slumming, I think you call this kind of thing. And race is not the only issue on the menu here, either; I feel that Native Son has interesting and important things to say about how the poor, the underclass, in general are treated and perceived by the more privileged people squatting on their shoulders.

Not wishing to spoil it for first-time readers I won’t say too much about the tragic, violent heart of the novel, except to say that as a consequence of the girl’s attention Bigger does a terrible thing. It takes quite a lot to shock me, but what Bigger does, and his attempts to cover it up, really did make me gasp. It is an act that, in some way, is motivated by fear; Wright seems to be suggesting that the oppressive atmosphere that surrounds Bigger, not just in the house but society as a whole, breeds violence, paranoia, and insanity, and, I think, he’s largely correct in that. As for the novel as a whole, there is, in the second half, some polemical guff that’s a bit dry and bit too in your face for my taste, and the writing throughout is only adequate. Wright’s style isn’t poetic, or particularly controlled or eye-catching. It just is. The matter-of-fact prose prevents Native Son, for me anyway, from being a masterpiece, but perhaps enhances the page-turner quality of the work. Native Son is an easy and quick read, but is also tight and thrilling and well worth investing the [not extensive] time in.

ABSALOM ABSALOM BY WILLIAM FAULKNER

1

Seth Miller responded to the invitation the demand to speak or listen to old worn-out stretched to the limit Mary Warren with little enthusiasm. Mary Warren who was worn-out to the limit beyond decaying beyond death beyond recognition holed up in her worn-out house, shawled against the weather and shawled against the town against people like Seth, black-shawled, forever black. Her room even more than her house was her feeble No, her croaked protest against all that she had seen had suffered or thought she had suffered the last near fifty years, so why had Seth been invited into that weak thin-walled shell of a house of a room, stepping carefully? What she had for him what to say to give to offer up to the progeny of a family she had walked away from reproachfully all those years ago, what she had was but a lamentation a wail as thin as her walls as black as her shawl her tongue.

You wont remember him you who were a child then, dirtied stopped up in childhood living not on the land but like the land. You won’t remember him signing up then not but a year or two older than yourself now, but older yes in woe and weariness. A reader then but not an alwaysreader becauseit would come to pass that he wouldn’t read no more, but when he signed up he was reading all the time even though at that time he probably felt himself that it wouldn’t last. And it didn’t last though he didnt stopdead, no he slowly slid he slithered into stopping with the pace and irrevocable inevitable endreach of a soon to be extinct animal. He acknowledged that inevitability to himself and to others before final-stopping, maybe in the midtime of his stopping he said there are few good books and he, the high and mighty man, meant that, not many but too-few good books and he quoted Richard Ford who’d said the same that about there not being many good books but only too-few and the writer Richard Ford was another who started books and abandoned them, more abandoned than read because writing aint as easy as it strikes some, that talent isnt a democracy. He guessed at hundred-fifty, that was his own estimate the number of good writers in the whole of history and he couldn’t square that with a lifetime of reading. Do you understand?

Yes ma’am, said Seth, but he didn’t really, not unerstand that is, why this never-enthusiastic lifeburnt old woman would feel compelled to break her vow of silence and isolation now and with this.

Yet he didn’t spare his speech not even for a minute though some would have been mightily glad of that; he spoke of a trinity, of what he considered the only true greats, and Sutpen always Sutpen and that cry of Absalom! David’s patriarchal cry for his errant son. Always ,jumping off with the difficulty, or the undifficulty, how too much is made of that difficulty so as it actually influences the way that new readers read the work so that they find what is absent in it, always wanting to be defeated to be beaten and destroyed. Absalom, Absalom! The cry of anguish, of defeat and deflation: Absalom Absalom. Fractured, he’d admit to that, circular repetitive for some more than boring but not especially difficult he’d have no truck with that, them making excuses for themselves in advance in his exasperation he said it.

2

Seth made on home, a walk as short as it was unmemorable, though this place was his childhood, his always home town. But memories are like unmastered dogs, they come when they’re ready and not when they are called or expected. Mr Miller on the stairs, foot raised about to leave and lock himself up in patriarchal pasttimes, but he could not let it lie could not allow himself to go unseen in his curiosity his need to know, so turned and dropped to the bottom of the stairs upon hearing the front door.

So? he said. And Seth bemused by all this attention stood stork-still not knowing how best to respond. His father’s eagerness like the sunheat, beating down on his face. And later: Yes, I remember his signing up. I remember e’en the first reviews, short as they was and not too bright nor int’resting; but he grew into them, like a child grows into its clothes or skin. But he continued growing past the point that wise, some’d say sane, people would and so soon grew listless and yes he mentioned about that, about giving up the reviewing and the readin e’en. I remember he said there was not many good books, a limited supply of them, but one he loved was the Faulkner one, that’s the one yown Mary Warren was speaking on. Not e’en, no, not difficult; he said he couldn’t understand that, that confusion or being lost in it, not when you compared it to Ulysses where you’d the knowledge or hadn’t, where you could fail at it through no fault of yown. Absalom Absalom requir’d patience, he said., and concentration, but it didn’t ask too much of you that wasn’t already in you. But he was humble about that, not intendin to criticise others just out of a desire for new-others not to be put off, is how he told it. Sutpen, yes, he’s one of thems in the book, and he’d speak on him certainly, but not obsessively, like Warren was suggestin, just as part of making the point about how it [the book] wasn’t big on plot, that there was barely enough plot to go round e’en, the bulk of the writin a big beautiful poetic investigation into the motivations and thought processes of these people, but from the outside from the perspective of those that were outside not Sutpen himself or his wife or children, theirs feelings and all, and how you could have put down the entire plot of the thing on a napkin with space to spare: mysterious Sutpen arriving in town and settin up, beyond his means, until he was powerful; and then took a wife and took them children out of her. One of them children makes to marry, and the brother does a bad thing in regard to it. Not much more-an that. A small napkin, son, would suffice forit. No, he wanted more to tell about memory and how Absalom Absalom’s bout that more-an anything; the fate of the South and racial tension and familial tension, but memory moreso, or that’s how he saw it. I remember him tellin me bout the structure, how it was mostly a series of monologues, like Shakespearean soliloquies. All on the same subject of Sutpen and his family; different perspectives from different people, but all a them people fixed on the same things. A book of memories, literally; ‘swell as about memory itself, bout how can you know the truth of somethin, whether you were there or not, after the event, outside of the pure-present. He thought there was no truth, outside of that, or if there was there was multiple truths, I think he said, no absolute truth certainly. 

3

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” quoted Seth, as his roommate looked on dazzled by that religious offering, he not knowing the line being not a bible person, and not sure on how it was relevant to his question even.

“If I got this right,” he said, “Is that there was this guy and he wrote reviews or somethin, but stopped or stopped reading at any rate, because there are only a hundred and fifty good books in the world.”

“Writers.”

“Writers, right. Anyway, so this guy thought there were three great American novels and one of them was Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner. Do you know the other two?”

“The Ambassadors and Moby Dick.”

“Ok, but this guy he was sort of obsessed maybe with Faulkner, of the three; and he went around talking about Absalom a lot, this quintessential American novel as he saw it, a novel with very little plot, just a rusty tale of a man called Sutpen and his arrival in a town and how that pissed off the locals somewhat or somethin, or unnerved them more like, and how he got married and had kids and how those kids, the son in particular, did some bad shit and so went away and that is how that quote fits in, right?”

“Yeah, kinda.”

“Right, so but that’s not the heart of the thing, but the heart of the thing is memory, like how faithful are your memories, how accurate? Like, you could have a bunch of people all witness or be part of an event and yet they might all see and remember it differently? Like, when there’s a crime and they get the witnesses to describe the perp and they [the police] get a whole bunch of wildly different descriptions. That’s one of the ways they didn’t catch that Zodiac killer, did you know that? Anyway, so memory is fallible, or not even that, because that might indicate there’s a right way to remember and this guy’s point was that there aint. So Absalom Absalom is basically structured around a few people all giving an account of this guy Sutpen, but their accounts are different and you got to wonder who knows what and is anyone lying or misremembering or is it just that they saw those things different, and that’s weird, like mind-fucking, because you start to realise that there is no reality, not really; you’ll never get to the truth of Sutpen because there is no truth of Sutpen, just what people saw and felt, their own seeing and feeling, and even those things alter from moment to moment. So, right, these monologues, these people looking back and remembering, or not, well, they’re just guessing, just postulating, just putting their own spin on things and in particular how the people involved in Sutpen’s life, the major players, how they felt; what I mean is that you got a bunch of people saying stuff, like ‘such and such felt this way and such and such felt that way’ and you’re never sure if they been told by the people involved or whether they’re just imaginin’ that’s how they felt. I got that right, Seth?”

“I guess.”

“That’s neat, right? Because here you are, listening to all this crazy mysterious bullshit about this reviewer-guy, all these hints and suggestions from your Pa and that old lady, and that puts you in the same position as that Quentin Compson, the kid in the book, who gets told all that other crazy mysterious bullshit about Sutpen, although the Sutpen bullshit is more interesting than yours, I gotta say.”

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.