racism

JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT BY LOUIS-FERDINAND CELINE

Here’s how it started. I didn’t say a word, didn’t even look at it funny, but 2016 took a dislike to me from the first moment. Initially, it was only small things, relatively insignificant things. A sharp whack on the head when my back was turned. A quick kick to the shins. That sort of thing. But then, with generic horror film tempo, the bad began to escalate. Every sphere of my life became compromised, to such an extent that I was actually afraid. I was spooked. I tried to flee, to another country. But that plan turned to shit too. I was on the run, while remaining stationary. By the end of the year, I expected the worst out of every situation, and I was never disappointed. So as midnight on the thirty-first of December struck, I waved 2016 away with glee; I watched it die with a sadistic smirk. Good riddance.

“The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.”

As the new year slouched into being, one of my first acts was to pick up Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It seemed appropriate. Whenever Céline’s work is discussed, it is invariably impressed upon you how hateful and irate it is. I’ve never quite agreed with that, or certainly not in relation to the novel under review here. The chateau trilogy, which arrived at the end of his career, would perhaps fit the bill, but Céline’s debut is too literary, too controlled to deserve that description. If, for example, you compare this novel with Castle to Castle, with its torrent of ellipses, the differences are clear. That book starts with a formless, seemingly autobiographical, rant about royalties, which continues for numerous pages, with no other characters in sight. Journey, on the other hand, begins conventionally, with something of a plot, concerning Ferdinand Bardamu’s enlistment in the army. In fact, in relation to his later novels, Journey seems almost quaint, in that it delivers some fairly straightforward literary pleasures.

To say that it is relatively conventional is not, of course, the same as saying that its outlook is positive. It isn’t; Journey is unrelentingly cynical and that, I felt, would chime with my current mood. However, what struck me most vehemently this time around [I’ve read the book twice now] is how sad and moving it is. For me, it is not hate that is the dominant emotion, but fear; and, consequently, the book resonated with me in an unexpected way. Bardamu passes through four circles of hell: the army, Africa, America, and back home in France as a doctor. During all of these stages he is worried about his life, his prospects, and the state of the world; he is constantly scared of, and baffled by, the situations, and danger, that he finds himself in. Indeed, one of the things I most like about Journey, in contrast to the writers that it influenced, is that the Frenchman’s protagonist is not self-glorifying, he is always at pains to convince you of how weak and small he is. He is the archetypal rabbit in a forest teeming with wolves; and, by his own admission, he is shitting himself.

Of the four circles, the first, which takes up roughly the first 100 pages, and which deals with Bardamu’s experiences during World War 1, is the most impressive. I would, in fact, go as far as to say it is amongst the finest war-writing that I have ever read; and I have read a lot. Perhaps only the Russians, Victor Serge and Vasily Grossman, in their respective novels Unforgiving Years and Life & Fate, did an equally fine job of portraying the sheer senselessness and horror of being caught up in a military conflict. Bardamu, as the self-appointed last coward on earth, is absolutely out of his element. He cannot understand why the Germans want to kill him nor why his own countrymen want to send him to his death. Every moment for him is an effort to stay alive, to fuck fate; he is the ultimate anti-hero. At one point he even tries to get himself captured, because he sees in that the surest way of saving his skin.

revisited-dead-end-alley3 (1).jpg

The following section of the book, featuring Bardamu’s adventures in Africa, is, I would argue, the weakest. On the surface, there is very little to distinguish it from the war section – Ferdinand is still being oppressed by others, is still scared and trying to make it through the day – but it feels somewhat derivative, or at least too obvious. Indeed, it is essentially a re-write of Heart of Darkness. The European enters colonised, inhospitable Africa, which strikes him as dangerous and alien, and goes in search of an enigmatic figure. Yet it differs from Conrad’s work in one crucial aspect, in that having already been through the war section, one understands that Céline isn’t singling Africa out, that, as far as the Frenchman is concerned, everyone everywhere is crazy and dangerous and alien, not just Africans.

However, there were, for me, too many clichés and stereotypes, even bearing in mind that Céline did in fact spend time in Africa [and so ought to be able to bring a kind of truthfulness to his fictional account of the place]. Maybe it is simply a sign of the times, or rather a sign of the prevailing attitudes of our respective times, but I was made uncomfortable by how lazy some of the descriptions and references seemed, such as frequently mentioning cannibalism, or tom-tom drums, or the mumbo-jumbo African language. Having said that, I do think it is possible to defend the book in this regard. Céline was not a subtle writer; all of his work, regardless of what subject he was dealing with, is exaggerated, all of his characters are broad. So, if there is a boss he will unfailingly be a maniacal shyster, who takes advantage of his employees; if there’s an army general he’ll be a bad tempered lunatic, intent on seeing his charges blown to bits or riddled with bullets. Céline just did not do nuanced characters; he did not do realism.

“Not much music left inside us for life to dance to. Our youth has gone to the ends of the earth to die in the silence of the truth. And where, I ask you, can a man escape to, when he hasn’t enough madness left inside him? The truth is an endless death agony. The truth is death. You have to choose: death or lies. I’ve never been able to kill myself.”

In terms of influences, Céline’s writing is a mixture of Knut Hamsun [particularly Hunger] and Dostoevsky [most obviously Notes from Underground], with a little French surrealism thrown in. What came out of those influences, however, was identifiably his own. Part of that is to do with his fearlessness [ironically enough], his ability to look all kinds of misery in the face without blanching. Furthermore, his hopelessness, his despair, is more relatable for the average person. Hamsun’s and Dostoevsky’s protagonists are complicated people, and their tragedies are often on a much grander philosophical-existential-emotional scale. Ferdinand Bardamu’s concerns – lack of money, not being able to keep a woman, the misery of low-paid employment – are, on the other hand, perhaps similar to yours, especially if you are a man. What is so fascinating about his oeuvre is that Céline consistently pitches this everyman, this poor frightened bastard, into some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century…and then allows us to watch as he inevitably flounders.

Advertisements

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.

THE COMPLETE FAIRY TALES BY THE BROTHERS GRIMM

Once upon a time there were two German brothers called Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who decided – and it was a very clever, but not wholly original idea – that they wanted to preserve the folktales that had been shared amongst themselves by the German people for many many years. They lived in a cabin in the woods and every day Wilhelm would leave the cabin and travel to a nearby town or village and speak to the locals, asking them for their favourite stories, which he would memorise as best he could and then return home to his brother. Once at home Wilhelm would present from memory the stories he had heard and in that way Jacob would be able to experience them as he, Wilhelm, had done and as generations of local people had done too. Jacob was a writer and he spent his days in the cabin transcribing and working on the stories that Wilhelm brought home.

What does thou have for me, brother Wilhelm? said Jacob, as Wilhelm stepped through the door. You won’t be happy, brother Jacob, replied Wilhelm. Did you speak to the tailor? asked Jacob. I did, said Wilhelm. Did you speak to the baker? asked JacobI did, said Wilhelm. Did you speak to the miller? asked Jacob. I did, said Wilhelm. And thou hast nothing for me? 

“Brother I have many tales for thee,
But none of the finest quality.”

I see, said Jacob.Do you want me to tell you one of the stories I heard today? asked Wilhelm. Though it may prove to be a sore disappointment, please present your best story, said Jacob. So, with heavy heart, and scant enthusiasm, Wilhelm began to tell the story he had heard from the blacksmith, the story of the unfortunate pin.

The Unfortunate Pin 

There once was a pin, quoth Wilhelm, and it had its home in a pincushion. However, one day after being used by his mistress he was not taken home but was instead thoughtlessly left on a chair. When the master came home for his dinner he sat down on the chair and cried out in great pain for he had sat on the unfortunate pin. The master was very angry so he picked up the pin and he threw it on the floor. At this moment the mistress was walking over to the table with the master’s food and she stood on the unfortunate pin. As it pierced the sole of her foot she too cried out in great pain and dropped the master’s food on the floor, whereupon the plate shattered. In great anger she picked up the pin and threw it, this time out of the window where it landed in front of a curious dog. The dog sniffed at the unfortunate pin and quickly ate it. The pin stuck in the dog’s throat, cut him terribly, and prevented him from breathing. The dog died soon after.

Sheisse! Is that it? said Jacob.Yes, mine brother, replied Wilhelm. The story is not bad as such, but ’tis so short and the ending is so abrupt, said Jacob.Tis so, replied Wilhelm.The common working folk don’t have the time for complex story telling. Jacob’s face went dark, and he said:Our book will be a failure, Wilhelm. And so it was; the first edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen sold poorly indeed. 

One day, however, the brothers’ luck changed. Wilhelm was passing through the forest on his way to a nearby town when there appeared in front of him a strange demon.Psst, looking for stories, my boy? said the demon. Wilhelm was scared and yet oddly drawn to the demon. Who are you, thou weird creature? he said.Oh my boy, my name is P.B. Gremlin, and I can make you rich and famous! cackled the demon.

710554

“My name is P.B. Gremlin, and I can make you rich and famous!”

“Rich and famous? How so, demon?  The demon’s eyes flashed. In each of my eyes there is a stone; if you agree to my proposition I will cry tears of joy and the stones will fall to the ground and I shall give them to thee.

What good are stones to me?” said Wilhelm.

These are magic stones, my boy! Oh so magic are these stones!

Wilhelm was confused, so he asked: How so, demon? 

Please, call me P.B. Oh, P.B. is such a fine name! There is only one, my boy, only one P.B. Gremlin in all the world! I have been around since before time and will be here after time! said P.B. Gremlin. 

Very good, Mr P.B., but I know not yet what your proposition is and why I wudst want those stones that you say are in your eyes. 

The stones, my boy, are story-spinning stones. If you knock them together click-clack a man or a creature will appear and tell you a story, oh the finest story thou hast ever heard!

Wilhelm was intrigued. Those are truly magical stones, P.B. I wudst like them very much.

 Oh, you warm my heart, boy! Oh, how warm is my heart right now! We will have a fine time, you and I!” cried the demon.

What is your proposition? asked Wilhelm. 

I will give you the stones, my boy, if you agree to write me a book, oh, the very best kind of book! 

What kind of book is it thou wudst have me write? asked Wilhelm. 

A book to end all books, my boy! A smutty, dangerous, oh so misogynistic book! cried the demon happily

You want me to write a saucy book? asked Wilhelm.

You will write me an erotic book, my boy, one that will be yet also strangely unsexy! And, oh, the women will lose their minds and buy it, buy it in droves, boy! It will be called 50 Shades of Grey, my boy; oh, what a fine and meaningless name!

Suddenly Wilhelm felt uneasyI’m not sure I like the sound of this proposition, demon. What if I refuse?

The demon giggled. You won’t refuse, my boy! Not unless you want to keep publishing tiresome stories like The Nail for the rest of your life! 

But I have no talent for writing, demon. 

Don’t worry about that, boy, talent is not necessary when writing the kind of book I desire, in fact it’s an obstacle.

In that case, I agree, said Wilhelm.

Splendid! And with that the demon cried tears of joy and, as he had promised, two stones fell from his two eyes and he gave them to Wilhelm.Now, I have fulfilled my side of the bargain, boy. You must write the book I have ordered from thee within three years, at which time I will return and take the manuscript from thee. And so the demon disappeared and Wilhelm, instead of walking to the nearest town, turned around and went home.                 

At home Wilhelm told Jacob all about the story-spinning stones and offered to demonstrate for him their power. Jacob agreed and put down his quill and watched while Wilhelm took the two stones, one in each hand, and knocked them against each other click-clack. At that sound a fox appeared in the room and said:

“Masters, let me serve thee,
By telling you a fine story!”

Jacob and Wilhelm were very happy to see the fox and begged him to proceed with his story.

The Girl & The Fox

Once there was a fox, quoth the fox,who was very hungry and so he stole into the garden of a nearby family with the intent of taking one of their chickens. However, when he got there he found that the chickens were being guarded by a fierce dog. The fox did not want to risk his life, despite his hunger, and so he crept away. As he was about to leave the garden he saw a young girl playing by herself and the fox changed his plan, for he was sly and a quick thinker, and decided to take the girl for his dinner instead. He walked over to the girl and said:

“Little one, how bored you seem
All on your lonesome, sitting here.
To have a friend would be a dream
So come with me! Oh have no fear.”

But the girl was cautious, for her parents had warned her about talking to strangers, and she did not, in any case, like the fox’s untidy appearance or the hungry look in his eye. So she said no and the disappointed fox went away.

Fox_detail_900

However, the fox was not to be so easily put off, so he returned the next day, this time with a gift for the child. He said:

“Little one, how bored you seem
All on your lonesome, sitting here.
This gift will prove I am not mean,
So come with me! Oh have no fear.”

But the girl had been taught not to take gifts from people she did not know and so she declined and told the fox to go away. The fox was very disappointed, but still he would not be put off. So, a third day dawned and he was back again, but this time he had put on a new waistcoat and combed his fur so that it shone like gold. When he saw the girl he said:

“Little one, how bored you seem
All on your lonesome, sitting here.
See how my coat doth shine and gleam!
So come with me! Oh have no fear.”

The girl looked at the well-dressed and well-groomed fox and this time could find no fault with him and being very bored and very lonely agreed to be his friend and go away with him. The fox was very pleased and that day ate well.

Jacob and Wilhelm were most pleased with the story of the fox and the girl and thanked the fox for it, whereupon the fox disappeared. Those stones will make our fortune! said Jacob. ‘Tis so, replied Wilhelm, and I need no longer go out hunting for stories. Once a day I will knock the stones together and you will write down what is said by whoever appears. Agreed, said Jacob. And so it was, and in this way the brothers amassed a large number of excellent tales, each one more delightful and sophisticated than the last. Amongst the stories told to the brothers were Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, The Bloody Chamber and many many more.

The tales, in content, were most fantastical and featured such things as a girl who wept pearls and a gold talking fish and a magic table that produces food when you wish it to, to name only a few. As a result, for people were enchanted by these magical stories, each subsequent edition of Kinder-und Hausmärchen sold better than the one before and the Grimm’s reputation was cemented and their fortune made. However, as the time passed the brothers became increasingly uneasy, albeit for different reasons.I am concerned, said Jacob, about some of these tales. When the demon comes for his smutty book we must question him. How goes the erotic novel, brother? As well you know,said Wilhelm, I have not written a word, I have only the names of the principle characters: Christian and Anastasia. And it has been three years today, the demon must come for it at any moment.” Thou aren’t a writer, the demon will understand, said Jacob.

At that moment the demon did appear in a burst of smoke, and said: My boys! How lovely to see you! Oh, what a sight! Three long years I’ve been waiting. So, tell me, how are the stories? Selling well? 

Very well, demon, said Jacob,but I have some questions. 

The demon frowned. Oh, they always have questions! The Marquis de Sade had questions! Chaucer had questions! No doubt Lil’ Kim and Philip Roth and Peter North will all have questions too! So, what are your queries, my boy? 

The stories are superb. With the tellers being magically transported to our cabin they have much more time to indulge us with lengthy tales, but quite a few of them share details or action or characters, Stupid Hans for example, or fooling a wolf into eating stones. I’m worried that readers will soon find them repetitious.” 

Oh my boy, your tales are meant to represent the oral story telling tradition of your fine country. So, of course there will be some repetition, as the tales have travelled around and changed shape from being passed from person to person. This means one will find variants of the same story, or elements repeated in numerous stories. If you use the magic stones once one might get a man from Cologne, another time a witch from Berlin, and both may tell you the local version of the same tale. If your reader is a serious one then he will find these repetitions interesting, if not he will skip the stories that bore him.” 

“I feel much better now, demon. But, I’m also worried about the dark subject matter of many of the stories. Demon, I don’t know if you’ve read them, but in almost every tale someone dies horribly, or is mutilated, like the girl whose hands are cut off or the mother and daughter who are put in a barrel full of nails and dragged by horses all over the world. And those are the least disturbing examples!” 

My boy, why does this bother thee? The world is a scary place, and life isn’t all candy floss and giggles!” 

“I know that, demon, but, although it wasn’t specifically intended for children, young ones do read our book.” 

“Quite so, and a good thing it is. Oh, there’s far too much molly-coddling of children, my boy, and in the future there will be much more. Children should not be raised to think that nothing bad will ever happen to them, that they are entitled to a life without periods of woe or hardship. It is much better for them to learn early that, yes, bad things can and do happen, and that life can sometimes be, and frequently is, hard and that all people must die. When young one is at one’s most perceptive, most receptive; if they be shielded too effectively from the darkness when it doth finally descend twill be a great a shock to them and they might handle it badly indeed.” 

“I am satisfied, demon, but I am also concerned that some of the tales involve religiosity – these tales feature God and Angels and so forth – that wudst be difficult to bear for the non-religious amongst us. People don’t like being preached to, demon.”

“They do not, my boy, and you’re right in thinking that there are people who will be unhappy or made uncomfortable by those stories. But, should it bother thee? No. You cannot make everyone happy all of the time; in any case, if you took out, say, the word God and replaced it with the word Wizard those tales wudst read like any of the others. If a religious word alone upsets people so much that they would want to close your book then I’d say the problem is not with your book but with them, indeed. Besides, religious tales are part of the oral story-telling tradition and they canst skip those stories if they wish.” 

Thy hast put my mind at rest, demon. But, can you convince me that racism is ok? One day we were told a story that the teller called The Jew among Thorns, and it was frightfully racist! I’m worried that it will offend people.”

“So it will, my boy, so it will! But aren’t people sometimes racist? These are stories from the people; the stories in your book must, and do, reflect the culture and society of your time. Is it fun to read? No. Is it important as a historical document? Indeed, yes, my boy.” 

The demon then moved towards Wilhelm who throughout the conversation with Jacob had been looking very glum.How nervous you look, my boy. You have something for me, I trust?he said. Wilhelm trembled and shook his head, for the power of speech had been lost to him for a moment.Bring forth the manuscript, my boy! P.B. is impatient! Oh, I do hope ’tis grubby, so grubby and offensive! he cackled.

I haven’t got it, demon, replied Wilhelm at last.

“Not got it? Oh, this is bad, my boy, very bad, said P.B. Gremlin.

‘Tis not my fault! I had completed the book but a sparrow flew through the window and stole it!” 

Oh, sparrows are psychotic creatures, but they aren’t thieves, dear boy. Tell me, have you learnt anything from the tales you have been told these long years?”

Why, yes, the stories all have morals or lessons.” 

What are those lessons, boy?” 

That thou shudst behave honourably and not cheat or lie or do wrong.” 

“Oh, what fine lessons those are, my boy! What else?” 

“That thou shudst be wary of strangers, that bad people may try and take advantage of you and do you wrong, that thou shudst not be greedy and avaricious.” 

Oh, those lessons are the most important lessons, boy! And what happens to those who are greedy, who lie, who cheat, who talk to strangers?” 

They are punished, most horribly,” said Wilhelm.  And with that the demon plucked out Wilhelm’s eyes so that he could no longer find his way through the forest in search of people to tell him stories. Next he lopped off Jacob’s hands so that he could no longer write down the stories told to him, for he had not once offered to help his brother write 50 Shades of Grey even though he too had profited from the magic stones. Finally P.B. Gremlin picked up the story-spinning stones and disappeared. The brothers never published a story again, for they died not long after. 

The Unfortunate Pin & The Fox and The Girl are my own work, so you haven’t been short-changed if you buy The Complete Fairy Tales and these two stories are not in it.

For more of P.B. Gremlin’s adventures: https://booksyo.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/50-shades-of-grey-by-e-l-james/

I’ve read the Grimm’s fairytales innumerable times; as I get older, and marginally wiser, they get richer and more magnificent.

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.