Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Lack Somewhere

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In his 1899 short story “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Chesnutt tells the tale of the pretentious and conservative Mr. Ryder, a Southerner and man of mixed ancestry who runs a club known colloquially as ‘The Blue Vein Society,’ a relatively exclusive association patronized by up-and-coming members of the fictional town of Groveland who are ‘more white than black,’ that is, ‘white enough to show blue veins.’ “I have no race prejudice,” he is proud to declare, “but we people of mixed blood are the ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black.” They are words that might very well have been spoken by the fearless, brilliant, if now sadly little-read author, Nella Larsen. Indeed there is perhaps no American writer who was more haunted by and preoccupied with the punishing existential stigma of mixed-race ancestry than Larsen. Born to a white Danish mother and a black Danish West-Indian father who, as a couple, chose to cross the color line, Nella, “a visibly brown child,” writes Thadious M. Davis in his introduction to Larsen’s novel, Passing, “was raised as the lone ‘colored’ person in a family that had refashioned itself, consciously changed its name, erased its racial past, and, with the disappearance of that past, obscured familial ties to the dark child in its midst.” For this Larsen suffered all her life, inspiring in her (just as in her protagonist, Helga Crane) a desperate, often angry iconoclasm that kept her shuttling restlessly between one people and another, always searching, never satisfied, rarely if ever happy in her skin:

Helga Crane couldn’t, she told herself and others, live in America. In spite of its glamour, existence in America, even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped, too uncertain, too cruel; something not to be endured for a lifetime if one could escape; something demanding a courage greater than was in her. No. She couldn’t stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.

Such, in broad strokes, is the story of Helga Crane in this grim, uncompromising, if highly readable and deeply worthwhile first novel. The title alone, Quicksand, is nearly sufficient to describe the painful daily crisis of so many African Americans in the 1920’s who suffered the triple curse of miscegenation (whether forced or consensual)—alienation from both the greater black and white communities, as well as from themselves. The ubiquitous and insidious racism that Larsen describes in the story of Helga Crane, in her life in the South, in Harlem, and in Copenhagen, to where, briefly, she flees, must eventually penetrate even the toughest of skins, as it does in time with hers, manifesting itself first as chronic dissatisfaction, self-censorship, insecurity, denial, and self-reproach, coupled at points with a bitter arrogance, then finally—if not inevitably—as bitterness itself, as apathy, submission, and self-loathing. Tragically, and for all of the evidence to the contrary, Helga’s problem seems to her, by the end of the novel, to stem less from the cruel and inhuman strictures of America at large as from a personal failing or flaw in her nature, from a lack within. To say, as a host of critics once did, that such an ending is overly pessimistic, is almost obscenely ridiculous—as if the pain Larsen describes was contrived for narrative effect alone, as if the novel itself has no greater function than to please us as readers. Larsen didn’t write to be clever, to exercise her imagination, to be creative; she wrote to tell the truth and, by telling the truth, to dignify her own life in all its pain and complexity. One has only to think of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, of the virulent, widespread, and blatantly systematic racism that still thrives in the U.S. today, to appreciate just how astute and courageous she was. 

Quicksand, while available in a number of different editions, has recently been republished as part of a beautiful collection of short novels called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1920’s. Edited by Rafia Zafar, the collection includes work by such African American greats Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Wallace Thurman. There is also a companion volume called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1930’s. Do yourself a favor and buy them both. They are beautiful books.

Nella Larsen, one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the Harlem renaissance, was born Nellie Walker on April 13, 1891, in Chicago. She began publishing stories in the mid-1920’a and published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. Passing came out the following year.

Peter Adam Nash

Friday, March 13, 2015

What's Wrong With Me? Part I

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower


A list of things that I admire includes literary novels, the beautiful and damned city of Beirut (any beautiful and damned city), bucolic Transylvania, the art of literary translation, novels that are wholly lacking in the conventions of ordinary fiction--lacking plots, dialogue, and obvious authorial grasping after popularity or sales. I am drawn to books of all kinds written by East Europeans, especially Romanians and Hungarians, to claustrophobic fiction that keeps its story in a room in a small village or in a dank Stalinesque apartment in an unimaginable city like Bucharest. Frankly I've grown weary of New York City as the center of the literary universe and eagerly await the first novel to be set entirely in Szigetszentmiklós. I enjoy books about solitary characters and dislike fiction that is focused on suburban life, "self-realization," and love affairs that don't end badly. So: Bernhard, Beckett, Skvorecky, Manea, that sort of thing. If you've been paying attention these past two-and-one-half years none of this will come as a surprise. But what I don't get is why I sometimes turn my back on novels that seem to fit all of my idiosyncratic (idiotic?) criteria--books like the two under review here.

Gyula Krúdy was born in Nyiregyhaza, in Hungry. I've left out the many diacritical marks. How could you not love a novel by "the Hungarian Proust," a man whose collected works fill fifty volumes in the world's most inscrutable language, a writer beloved of Sandor Marai, whose gem of a novel Embers (A gyertyák csonkig égnek in Hungarian, if you can believe it) is one of my all time favorite books--how? Yet Sunflower, recently Englished by John Bakti and published by the saintly people at New York Review Books, nearly did me in. I couldn't finish it. Perhaps it was that I kept imagining I was reading Dracula, a novel I loathed in high school--the popular culture of blood-sucking fiction has always left me cold. Krudy's landscape is bleak; his central character (with a whiff of succubus) Eveline resides in a "country estate" in a place that must be Transylvania--emptiness to spare and an eccentric neighbor named Almos-Dreamer who periodically dies and comes back to life. (I kept wondering: Is he a bat?)  "Life is a mere flick of the hand. It isn't important. And not very interesting either." I like this sentiment, but it's what everyone believes in Eveline's corner of the world, a place where creepy attachments reeking of suppressed sexuality are the order of the day and where counts and princes play the violin and shoot themselves. But none of this is sufficient reason not to love this masterpiece (John Lukacs, who is often right, calls it that). So what's my problem? Is it that spring has come and a book like this one requires a pitch-black and wintery night? Don't I care about the characters? Not that. I never care about the characters; I've too many real-life people to care about. Isn't the novel psychologically interesting, rich in Freudian innuendo, replete with hints of dark passion? Yes, it most certainly is possessed of these qualities, if they are qualities. Is it that Krudy published the novel in 1918, a year whose deeper resonances keep me from understanding the frivolity that lies at the heart of the story? What's my problem with this novel--it's obscure, Hungarian, and cheerless. Everything one wants in a good read.

Having given the matter some thought I've concluded that my problem is with Krudy's style, his florid prose (at least in Batki's translation), the hothouse atmosphere; it's as if the novel transpired in a room full of orchids. By page 100 I was gasping for air: "Eveline strapped the red garter around her knees, and dug up a warm crimson house coat. She bustled about like a colorful pollen-laden moth, above the midnight flower-bed." A "bustling" moth?

                                      (A splendid example of Hyalophora cecropia, not bustling)

It came to me that Krudy's style, at least in English, bears a distinct kinship to early 19th century English fiction of the Wuthering Heights variety. Overwrought. Sentimental and chilling, poetic but in the mode of the worst Romantics--George Crabbe's "The Village" or some of the insufferable stanzas of Byron's "Don Juan": "She lay, her dark eyes flashing through their [sic] tears,/Like skies that rain and lighten: as a veil/Waved and o'ershading her wan cheek/appears/her streaming hair." 

One thing I've never cared for is fiction or poetry that pitches emotions so high that their credibility is unsustainable. Of course depicting deep feeling is at the heart of all great writing, but the romantic flaw, and perhaps Krudy's in this book, is to push the limits of feeling too hard, to go too far in a direction that leads to bathos rather than art. I will try Sunflower again next winter. And I've ordered Krudy's other novels in English as well. And Marai's Sinbad Comes Home, a novel about the last day in the life of Gyula Krudy, Marai's, and most other Hungarians, literary idol.  What's wrong with me?

[to be continued]

George Ovitt (3/13/15)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Kill Your Television" or "Titian’s Initials (T.V.)"


Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Kill your television. Or maybe just turn it off. That’s what the obsessive, hopelessly distracted narrator of Toussaint’s novel, Television, does. Or tries to do. A French academic on sabbatical in Berlin, where he has taken an apartment in which to commence and complete a draft of what he is confident will be a ground-breaking study of Tiziano Vecelli, the Venetian-school painter best known as Titian, the anonymous narrator quickly concludes that unless he stops watching television altogether he will never get down to work.

            I’d decided to spend the summer alone in Berlin to devote myself to the study of Titian   
            Vecellio. For several years now I’d been planning a vast essay on the relationship between 
            political power and the arts. Little by little, my focus had narrowed to sixteenth-century Italy, 
            and more particularly to Titian Vecellio and Emperor Charles V; in the end I’d chosen the 
            apocryphal story of the paintbrush—according to which Charles V bent down in Titian’s studio
            to pick up a paintbrush that had slipped from the painter’s hands—as my monograph’s  
            emblematic center and the source of its title, The Paintbrush.

Unfortunately, the project is for naught, that is, unless he can actually renounce the odious habit that has overtaken his life. As he is quick to learn, it is no small challenge. Indeed, more than halfway through the story, the reader discovers that the narrator has still only managed to write the opening two words of his great monograph, "When Musset..." He is so distracted by the television in the apartment that he can't stop thinking about it—even (or especially) when it is off. Every day he sits down to write and every day he gets up. A "first-class rationalizer," "a casuist of rare accomplishment," he reassures himself that not writing is as important to the process of writing as writing itself! In fact at not-writing he seems to possess a singular gift, whiling away his time in Berlin drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, flipping his computer on and off, watching the neighbors in the apartments across the way (most of them watching television), sunbathing nude by the lake in Halensee Park, and generally neglecting the neighbor's plants, which he has agreed to water according to a strict and particular regimen—all while waxing philosophic about the troubling role of television in his thoughtful, well-meaning life.

Given what I have written so far, it should come as no surprise that what follows in this decidedly quirky novel is not the monograph itself (Who after all was Musset?) nor a humdrum, if heartening account of scholarly creation nor even a  comedy of bad manners, say, in the style of David Lodge, but a protracted, ironically amusing, finally deeply unsettling meditation on the effects of watching television, a habit now as ubiquitous in the world as it is disturbing in its effects and implications.  
            I spent hours every day motionless before the screen, my gaze fixed, bathed in the  
            ever-shifting light of the scene changes, gradually submerged by the flood of images 
            illuminating my face, the long parade of images blindly addressed to everyone at once and no
            one in particular, each channel being only another strand in the vast web of electromagnetic
            waves crashing down over the world.

Of course the point (his point, my point) is that a steady diet of video (television, movies, YouTube, TED Talks, advertisements, and pornography, in essence, the Internet itself) makes us dangerously impassive—sated, jaded, solipsistic, and remote. Driven by profit, by the frenzied peddling of trends, video culture depends on our willingness to be led by the nose, to cut loose our moorings, to be spectators in our own anxious lives. Indeed it depends on our willingness to not participate at all, to not think, to not question, to not evaluate what it is we see on the screen (and by extension in the world around us). The thriving video culture of today is a colossal sleight-of-hand, a vast, impersonal, essentially mercenary conglomeration of forces that thrives by our willingness to feed it, to take what it gives us as meaningful, significant, to accept as real and sufficient the restless tingling of its pulses in our brains. In his last, uproariously bleak novel Extinction, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard has his thinly disguised narrator declare, “Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and of human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures… Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century." While Bernhard was not explicitly speaking of video, I have no doubt that, were he still alive, he would be appalled by the virtually unchallenged, now dogmatic hegemony of video culture in the world today, astounded and dismayed by our zealous, fanatical subservience to the all-mighty screen.   

Reading and writing, by contrast, are actions, things a person does. That is the difference: reading and writing are creative acts, while (with perhaps few exceptions) watching video is not. In time, with exposure, watching video (even the most revered and artistic films) makes us dumbly acquiescent, for video, by its very nature, is about passivity, about receiving information over which one has little or no control. It is about allowing ourselves to be made puppets; it is about permitting our brains to be little more than screens upon which the lives of others are played.

Video culture today is not about connectivity and the democratization of information and knowledge, nor is it about the redistribution of wealth and power, but about its ruthless consolidation. It is about conscription and compliance and consumption. At the risk of overstating it, watching video at the rate we do today is voyeurism and titillation at the price of our souls, a habit and pastime, an obsession now pandemic, that, in the gloating guise of reality (and increasingly of 'progressive' education), quickly overwhelms our intelligence, our skepticism, our curiosity, our compassion, our courage, and our dissent, not to mention our individuality (about which, ironically, we Americans now seem more boastful than ever). As the late Edward Said puts it: "We are bombarded by repackaged and reified representations of the world that usurp consciousness and preempt democratic critique." What's worse, what's more, our desperate and ever-more defensive addiction to video erodes our basic optimism about ourselves, our belief (surely a prehistoric one) that the answer to what ails us lies not in sitting captive before a screen, in the political-corporate mediation of our lives, but in our own stubborn agency as people, that is, as cultures, communities, and individuals thinking and doing every day—a trying, hard-won engagement with the world that is, to me, the only truth that matters. Writes Warren Motte in his insightful afterword to the novel: "For as much as anything else, Television is about the ways in which novels compete for our attention with other, newer media, in an increasingly unequal dual where some of the most basic terms of our culture hang breathlessly in the balance. And the real hero of that struggle, Toussaint suggests, is the novel itself."

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of seven novels, including The Bathroom and Monsieur, both of which have been publish in English translation. His work has been compared to that of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, and the films of Jim Jarmusch. Published by Dalkey Archive, Television was translated by Jordan Stump.

Peter Adam Nash