Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jean Rhys: Caribbean Gothic

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Think of a ‘classic’ you were forced to read in high school or college, some supposedly great book that you hated, that bored you, that left you cold. Now pick it up again, read the first chapter or two, and see what you think. Chances are, the story will be different than you remembered it. That is what happened to me the other day when, sorting the books on my shelves, I discovered my old copy of Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, bought on whim, when I hadn’t a nickel to spare, at the old Brentano’s in Greenwich Village, a choice I remember regretting at once.

What hadn’t I liked about it? For the life of me I couldn't remember. Curious, inspired by my friend David’s recent praise of the novel, I scanned the first few pages and was hooked, so that by three o’clock that afternoon I had read it straight through. I sat amazed: surely someone had changed the story on me, for this novel was brilliant—sharply imagined, poetically crafted, darkly twisted in its setting and characters, in its storyline, phrasing, and detail. A ruined estate, a ghost of a mother, a parrot in flames. What more could one ask for?

What I liked especially about the novel this time around was the fact that, while it is a bold and original story in its own right, set mostly in the British West Indies and conceptually, thematically complete, it is further enriched (if one happens to have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre) by Rhys’ fleshing out of Rochester’s infamous madwoman in the attic, his first wife, the Creole and suicide, Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Rhys herself loved the novel Jane Eyre, read it throughout her life, yet always what moved her most about the story was not the protagonist herself but the minor, obliquely rendered Bertha, Rochester’s violently insane wife. As a woman and writer, Rhys wondered at the cause of this woman’s distress, at the story behind it, restless and dissatisfied with the little she knew.

While such re-imagining of famous novels is now grist for the mills (of Jane Eyre adaptations Rhys herself wrote that “[t]here have been umpteen thousand and sixty already”), what Rhys accomplished with Wide Sargasso Sea is something altogether different. No money-making scheme, she sought to humanize—and in this way more fully understand—this terrifying footnote of a woman she calls Antoinette by moving her center-stage and reducing the men in her life to shadows. In so doing the woman is no less mad, but it is a madness with which one can sympathize, for which one can grieve, a harrowing affliction of mind and heart that one can see for what it is: the residuum—cruelly concentrated in a single person—of nearly three centuries of slavery and oppression, the toxic half-life of British patriarchal and colonial rule.

Jean Rhys was one of the twentieth century’s foremost writers, a literary artist who made exquisite use of the raw material of her own turbulent life to create fiction of memorable resonance and poignancy.  Between 1928 and 1939, Rhys published four novels, Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight, which brought her critical acclaim but not fame.  After almost thirty years of obscurity, the successful publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 led to her rediscovery.  She died in 1979. (W.W. Norton)

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, July 18, 2013

S.Y. Agnon: Why Literary Fiction Matters

Nothing To Lose:
        Not Actually a Review of To This Day by S.Y. Agnon

In reading S.Y. Agnon’s short final novel To This Day I suddenly understood more clearly why it is that reading literary fiction is such an important complement (if not antidote) to the all but overwhelming glut of blogs, newspapers, magazines, and commercial non-fiction that defines the intellectual marketplace of American culture today. In the voice of his protagonist, a young Palestinian man (that is, a Galician Jew then living in Palestine) caught in Berlin on the eve of World War I, Agnon writes:

This was the job of the press: to distinguish the living from the dead by reporting on the dead to the living. If you were alive you read the newspapers, through which the lifeblood of the times circulated: birth and marriage notices, anniversaries and obituaries, commodities and stock prices, and the like. Moreover, reading a newspaper spared you the trouble of forming your own opinion… In no time you crisscrossed the world and the world was yours for the price of a newspaper.” 

While surely exaggerated, surely tongue-in-cheek, the passage helped to sharpen for me my long-held belief that literary fiction asks of a reader something radically different from the many other more popular forms of print, something essential, more lasting, unique. Unlike with so much non-fiction these days, a novel by Agnon, Bernhard, Klíma, Kafka, Sebald, Toer, Bellow, Valenzuela, Naipaul, El Saadawi, Kawabata, Castellanos, Dostoevsky, Rodoreta, Müller, Conrad, Mulisch, Emecheta, Bolaño or Mahfouz will not permit you to be passive,  to be persuaded, but will confront you with a character or characters, a problem (ethical, moral, intellectual, spiritual, existential), a world (perhaps familiar or strange), then force you to think about it, to examine the evidence before you, to draw your own conclusions. It will ask you—after what is often a mighty struggle—to form your own opinion

Again I turn to Kundera who, in speaking of the novel as form, writes: “Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws.” If you, the reader, choose to judge them you may, but “the novelist has nothing to do with it.”  That is the difference with literary fiction: the onus is on you, and you alone. You must decide, you must adjudicate or—if too moved, too shaken—you may recuse yourself instead, find a quiet place to think.

Part of what inspired this post, this tangent, was the realization that hardly a week seems to pass anymore when I don't have at least one intelligent adult tell me (usually as apology for not reading this blog) that he hasn’t the time for fiction anymore, that when he does find the time to read (in itself a mystery to me) it is almost always non-fiction: magazines, newspapers, blogs, and the latest from Gladwell, Friedman, Gilbert, Sedaris, and Larson. While I genuinely believe that all types of reading are good, and I mean all, I also believe that it is important to read widely, eccentrically, independently—independent, that is, of such cultural midwives and mediums as Oprah, Ellen, Slate, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

Commercial non-fiction (even the more political/intellectual variety) is largely about trends (spotting them, mapping them, making readers feel a part of them—even creating them, when the conditions are right). As such it is not only (and for all its distinctive urgency) often highly ephemeral in nature (guaranteeing, as with the latest cut in clothes, that whatever it is or implies about the world it will soon be replaced) but is likely to be driven in its popularity less by some practical or aesthetic measure of “quality” or “value” than by corporate marketing and gain. My contention here is that the world needs more people who are less reliant on the marketplace and more reliant on themselves—on their own wisdom, intelligence, and humanity, readers who genuinely trust themselves to think.

Writers invested in complexity (as opposed to demagoguery and self-promotion) do justice to us all by refusing to package up the world and tie it neatly with a bow. It is why their work sells so poorly and is harder, often disturbing to read. While surely the best non-fiction is complex, forcing us to reckon hard with the matters at hand (and on our own brave and lonely terms), only literary fiction refuses to persuade. It—unlike every other form of prose—has nothing to gain, nothing to sell you, nothing to lose.

*lead photo is of Agnon’s study in his house in Talpiot neighborhood in
         Jerusalem, now a museum called Beit Agnon.

S.Y. Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in Buczacz, Eastern Galicia (now Ukraine).  In 1908 he immigrated to Ottoman Palestine where he published his first story, “Agunot” under the pen name “Agnon”—a surname he adopted legally.  After an extended stay in Germany from 1913 to 1924, he returned to Jerusalem, where he remained until his death in 1970.  Winner of numerous Israeli prizes, including the Bialik Prize (1934), and the Israel Prize (1954, 1958), he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. To This Day is published by the fabulous Toby Press.  Be sure to check out their list:

 Peter Adam Nash 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lebanon: At War in the Ancient Garden

Little Mountain by Elias Khoury

What is it you were doing in the ancient garden three hundred years ago.

“Responsibility is what awaits outside the Eden of creativity,” writes South African author, Nadine Gordimer, in her well-known essay ‘The Essential Gesture.’ “I should never have dreamt that this most solitary and deeply marvelous of secrets—the urge to make with words—would become a vocation for which the world, and that life-time lodger, conscionable self-awareness, would claim the right to call me and my kind to account. The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read, and comes to realize that he is answerable.”

The idea—still deeply rooted—that the best literature is Olympian in nature, politically and emotionally detached, that it is fashioned in a manner somehow independent of the messy human lives that comprise it, is not and has never been true. This is not to say that dogma has a place in art; it does not. Yet to believe, as Flaubert tried so very hard to believe “that great art is scientific and impersonal,” involving “neither hate, nor pity, nor anger” is to deny the nature of art itself. No novel, no poem, no play has ever been written but that it is covered with fingerprints, dirty human prints. That is the particular brilliance of the novel as form, that it is simultaneously a site of political and personal accountability (for the author, for the characters themselves) and—as Milan Kundera puts it—“a realm where moral judgment [itself] is suspended.” Impossible? Perhaps, yet it is a dream to which so many of the world’s best writers aspire.

Not least among them is the Lebanese author, Elias Khoury, who smudges everything he writes with prints. What interests him and often characterizes his fiction are the seemingly formless works of such pioneering Arab writers as Tawfik al-Hakim and Taha Hussein, a style of writing that Edward Said describes in his introduction as “that combinatorial amalgam of different elements, principally autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, the whole highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.” In other words, everything but the kitchen sink—and sometimes that as well, whatever Khoury finds at hand, whatever he finds useful in telling his tale. His novel Little Mountain is a case in point. Told in a poetic, often disjointed style complete with maps and footnotes and what he calls “scenes” rather than chapters, brief tableaux one might find in a Hollywood script, Khoury attempts to chronicle, to fathom, the country’s calamitous civil war (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية اللبنانية), a sectarian struggle for supremacy that lasted from 1975 to 1990.  How else to describe such murder and destruction, such cultural, religious, and political splintering, but with fragments, with bits?     
In at least one respect, the story of modern Lebanon, as sketched here in this novel, is not unlike the story of modern Israel. Created originally by the French in 1943 as a home and safe-haven for Maronite Christians, Lebanon has been under siege ever since, a struggle finally brought to a head in the bloody, protracted, almost infinitely convoluted Civil War. This was no straightforward struggle between Christians and Muslims, between East and West, but was positively Byzantine in its tangle of loyalties and aims. Apart from the ‘legal’ Lebanese Army, which quickly split into a Muslim-led and Christian-led troops, there were no less than twenty different armed Arab factions, not to mention the various Christian, Druze, Armenian, Kurdish, communist, and Marxist-Leninist militias, each fighting for their own bit of turf. Add to that the intervention of Syria, Israel, the United Nations, and the U.S., add an approximate death toll of 120,000 and the fact that more than half of the nation’s population is now living in exile, and it is nothing less than a miracle that Lebanon, as a country, still exists.    

Yet, as with all war stories, Little Mountain is only partly about war. It is of course really about people, a tale of memory, identity, and exile, the story of three young men stumbling their way through a landscape made surreal by violence, madness, and grief. It is a “plaintive, yearning prose poem of a novel,”* a grim, if significant transformation of the war and its consequences—for Khoury himself a brave and essential gesture.  

Elias Khoury, Lebanese novelist, playwright, critic, and public intellectual, is the author of eleven novels, including Gate of the Sun and The Journey of Little Gandhi.  He is currently professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, and editor in chief of the literary supplement of Beirut’s newspaper, An-Nahar.  He lives in New York and Beirut. (Picador)

+lead image called ‘The Boy From Cerrado’ by Guilherme Oliveira
*from a review in L’Est Républicain.

**, Civil War

Peter Adam Nash