Thursday, October 27, 2011

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino

No, that's not a typo on my part; it's the whole title -- If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.  What? You insist it's an incomplete title? You have the sympathy of the book's protagonist. He buys the novel and discovers that his copy is only partial. He returns to the bookshop for an intact copy of the same book. Once home again, he learns that although the replacement has the same title and author, it is in fact a different novel, and it too is only partial. At least his next trip to the bookshop is made slightly more pleasant by the arrival of an attractive female reader, also there to return her partial copy.  Our hero's interest in literature takes a marked leap as he suggests that they work together to solve the mystery.

Calvino proceeds to poke great fun at books, the people who read them, write them, study them, publish them, translate them and sell them. Oh, yes, and also those who don't read at all.

Our nameless protagonist soon discovers that the object of his literary lust, Ludmilla, has an intensely academic sister, Lotaria. They don't get on especially well: "Lotaria wants to know the author's position with regard to Trends of Contemporary Thought and Problems That Demand a Solution."
She eventually writes a computer application that tabulates the word count for a book, and based upon the frequency of certain words, she is able to analyse the content rationally and efficiently.  She has no use for her sister's reading of fiction for pleasure.
"Ludmilla reads one novel after another, but she never clarifies the problems. It seems a big waste of time to me. Don't you have this impression?"

Throughout the book, Ludmilla explains what, exactly, she wants from a novel.  There's only one problem: each of her explanations, while terribly articulate and erudite, differs from all the others.
"The novel I would most like to read at this moment," Ludmilla explains, "should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves..." 
Then later, "The novels that attract me most," Ludmilla said, "are those that create an illusion of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel, and perverse as possible." In short, there's no telling what she would like most to read.

Ludmilla and the hero go to the university hoping to find the missing ending to one of their novels. There, the hero meets Irnerio, who not only eschews reading but also has a dubious relationship with Ludmilla. It's a wicked combination. Irnerio makes the point, however, that once we've become readers, it's hard to stop.
"Me? I don't read books!" Irnerio says.
"What do you read, then?"
"Nothing. I've become so accustomed to not reading that I don't even read what appears before my eyes. It's not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear."
Ludmilla and the hero meet Professor Uzzi-Tuuzi, an expert on the dead (and fictional) Cimmerian language, believing that one of their partial novels is a translation from Cimmerian. The professor is delighted -- yes! They are correct, and he proceeds to translate an entirely different plot with different characters. He translates, however, with precision and passion.

Furthermore, Professor Uzzi-Tuzii had begun his oral translation as if he were not quite sure he could make the words hang together, going back over every sentence to iron out the syntactical creases, manipulating the phrases until they were not completely rumpled, smoothing them, clipping them, stopping at every word to illustrate its idiomatic uses and its connotations, accompanying himself with inclusive gestures as if inviting you to be content with approximate equivalents, breaking off to state grammatical rules, etymological derivations, quoting the classics. But just when you are convinced that for the professor philology and erudition mean more than what the story is telling, you realize the opposite is true: that academic envelope serves only to protect everything the story says and does not say, an inner afflatus always on the verge of being dispersed at contact with the air, the echo of a vanished knowledge revealed in the penumbra and in tacit allusions. Torn between the necessity to interject glosses on multiple meanings of the text and the awareness that all interpretation is a use of violence and caprice against a text, the professor, when faced by the most complicated passages, could find no better way of aiding comprehension than to read them in the original.
Following this linguistic performance, they ask again if he might actually have what they are looking for. He does not take it well.
"Don't ask where the rest of this book is!" It is a shrill cry that comes from an undefined spot among the shelves. "All books continue in the beyond...." The professor's voice goes up and down; where has he got to? Perhaps he is rolling around beneath the desk, perhaps he is hanging himself from the lamp in the ceiling.
Ludmilla and the protagonist go to the publishing house to try and get to the bottom of it all. Why, why can't they find one complete novel, written by the stated author in the stated language?  Once there, they find an old, harried editor running about like a madman, offering random suggestions to authors of rejected manuscripts. His advice most likely has nothing whatever to do with their work. He bumps into the protagonist and, mistaking him for another author, blurts out some advice.
"But couldn't you, forgive me for asking, include the footnotes in the body of the text, and perhaps condense the text a bit, and even—the decision is yours— turn it into a footnote?"
"I'm a reader, only a reader, not an author," you hasten to declare, like a man rushing to the aid of somebody about to make a misstep.
"Oh, really? Good, good! I'm delighted!" And the glance he gives you really is a look of friendliness and gratitude. "I'm so pleased. I come across fewer and fewer readers...."
This novel is hugely entertaining in the cerebral realm. Calvino's not aiming his arrows at readers' hearts. For those of us who read a lot, though, it poses one critical question:  Why? And maybe he doesn't even demand the answer to that. After all, do we ask why we eat or sleep?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chinese Cinderella, by Adeline Yen Mah

I recorded this book upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. The book's full title is Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter.

Adeline Yen Mah was born in Tianjin, China in 1937; her mother died shortly after delivering her. A few years later, Adeline's father re-married, and her new step-mother relegated the first wife's children to the background, Adeline included. This book tells the story of her unhappy childhood until, as a teen-ager, she left to attend university in England.

I'm very reluctant to write anything derogatory about an autobiography, especially when an author has had the courage to write and publish her emotional trauma. And her childhood was indeed a cold, lonely one. Her father and step-mother spoilt the two natural children they bore together, while Adeline and her siblings were sent to an upper floor, dressed plainly, fed simply and forbidden basic pleasures. Little Adeline found solace in the company of her Aunt Baba and her paternal grandfather, also living in the same home, and eventually in her schoolwork. She consistently came home with honours, always hoping that her father would see something of value in her. His new wife, however, playing the role of wicked step-mother to perfection, developed an especial loathing for Adeline and ensured that the girl remained all but invisible to her father. During the years immediately following WWII, when the Communists were battling the Nationalists for control of China, Adeline's parents resolved to put her at a Catholic boarding school in Tianjin. (The rest of the family had since migrated to Shanghai.) On the plane north, struggling with landing forms, Adeline's father confessed that he couldn't remember her given name or her birth date.  She supplied the former but never knew the latter, as the memories of her mother's death had expunged it from family discussion. He gave her his own birthday. A year or two later, distant relatives fetched Adeline from the convent school as Communist troops bore down on Tianjin; her parents appeared to have forgotten about her. And so it goes.

I can sincerely say that my heart aches for the child Adeline. I admire that she followed the advice of her aunt, grandfather and caring teachers and strove academically. After winning an international play-writing competition, her father relented and agreed to send her to a British university alongside her brothers, so her scholastic efforts did win her freedom in the end. I wish I could speak more enthusiastically about the book. I believe the author intended it for an audience of adolescent girls who, as she had, feel unloved and worthless. To me, however, the book reads like a fable, a fairy tale -- indeed, like Cinderella. The villains are ceaselessly vile, and the heroes overly good. Although she tries to inject some Chinese culture into the story -- the grandfather delivers a lengthy soliloquy on the art of Chinese orthography -- it's at a very basic level, aimed at readers who know little if anything about China. I'm sorry to say that the book just left me flat.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Calvino Catalogue System

I'm reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino. I can't think of any other book which pokes so much good-natured fun at books, not to mention the people who read them and those who write them.

Right off, Calvino imagines a reader, befuddled in a bookshop. Picking a single title has left him paralysed. Maybe it's best to settle first upon a category. These are Calvino's categories, and I challenge any librarian or cataloguist to improve upon them.

  • Books You Haven't Read
  • Books You Needn't Read
  • Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
  • Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
  • Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered
  • Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
  • Books Too Expensive Now and You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered
  • Books Ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
  • Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
  • Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too
  • Books You've Been Planning to Read for Ages
  • Books You've Been Hunting for Years Without Success
  • Books Dealing with Something You're Working on at the Moment
  • Books You Want to Own So They'll Be Handy Just in Case
  • Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
  • Books You Need to Go With Other Books on Your Shelves
  • Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
  • Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time to Reread
  • Books You've Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It's Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them
  • New Books Whose Author or Subject Appeals to You
  • New Books by Authors or on Subjects Not New (for you or in general)
  • New Books by Authors or on Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you)
The reader in Calvino's novel naturally leaves the book shop with -- what else? -- Calvino's novel. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep, by SJ Watson

As I recall, I reached for this novel after reading an effusive review somewhere or other.  "Quite simply the best debut novel I've ever read," gushes Tess Gerritsen on the book's cover.  Generally, books and films about amnesiacs don't appeal to me. I have limited patience for the idea of a protagonist who remembers none of his life history, or who wakes up with no clue who he is.  Something in the review suggested that this novel might have more depth, might raise some questions about the meaning of identity, consciousness and value of memory.

Another reviewer drawled that Ms. Gerritsen must not read many debut novels, since Before I Go to Sleep has stiff competition in that category, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, Frankenstein...  Publicists are an influential lot, and many novels get more hype than they deserve, but this is not at all a bad book. It's got flaws, but if I were SJ Watson, I'd be pretty chuffed about having written it.

As the story opens, Christine wakes up in a strange place, in bed with a strange man. Her first thought is that she had been to one hell of a wild party the night before. When she sees her face in the bathroom mirror, though, she panics. She's twenty years older than she'd thought. The man shuffles in and says he's Ben, her husband of many years. Since a head injury, Christine's memory lasts from waking til sleep. The next morning, she remembers nothing of the years before.  A psychiatrist has contacted her and suggested that she begin keeping a journal to record the day's thoughts and events. She keeps this journal and her visits to the doctor secret from her husband, as it seems he's despaired of ever finding a cure for her amnesia, and he claims that medical attention just agitates and upsets her. And what can she say? She can't remember anything from one day to the next. Each morning the psychiatrist phones her and reminds her to look for her journal, hidden in a shoebox. Each day, she reads the previous days' entries and carries on, building a written history for herself.

As with anything committed to paper, inconsistencies now become apparent. Although she doesn't remember what her husband told her yesterday or last week, she can now read what he said. Why did you tell me that we have no children? she demands after learning (and writing down) that they had a son together. Because he died in Afghanistan, and the conversation just upsets you every time, he replies, quite reasonably. Of course it would also hurt him to have to repeat the story of their son's life and death every day, too, so he's lied to spare them both daily grief. It seems reasonable enough to Christine. But as she accumulates a store of written memories, she becomes ever more driven to recover from her disorder. She needs to remember more, to understand flashes of older memories that come to her as her brain is newly stimulated. Because Christine cannot form any contiguous history with people -- her husband, the psychiatrist, her best friend -- it's extremely difficult to know whether or not she can trust them. I think about how we develop trust, or distrust for that matter. It's almost always a cumulative thing. A friend acts in a consistently honest way over the years; a colleague undermines you at work every few months. When your memory lasts about 16 hours, there is no such thing as cumulative trust. The sense of vulnerability I felt for Christine was staggering.

Trust isn't the only thing that's cumulative. Knowledge, wisdom...  In a frustrated outburst, Christine reacts against her husband's pleas to just relax and let him care for her. Doesn't she have everything she needs and wants, after all? No, she does not.
What I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things. There, in the bathroom, I thought of my old age. I tried to imagine what it will be like. Will I still wake up, in my seventies or eighties, thinking myself to be at the beginning of my life? Will I wake with no idea that my bones are old, my joints stiff and heavy? I can’t imagine how I will cope, when I discover that my life is behind me, has already happened, and I have nothing to show for it. No treasure house of recollection, no wealth of experience, no accumulated wisdom to pass on. What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?
Many self-help gurus tell us that we should live fully in the present. We spend too much of our time dwelling on the past and dreaming of the future while the present moment slips away unnoticed. Be like animals, they tell us:  does a dog spend hours reminiscing about chew toys of the past? Does a duck swim around fretting about its old age? I don't dispute this idea in the least, but Christine's circumstances suggest that neurological erasure of the past is not a desirable state. Past and future may be illusory to a certain extent, but they do exist for us. Christine's life without them is far from serene.
'This is like dying every day. Over and over. I need to get better,’ I said. ‘I can’t imagine going on like this for much longer. I know I’ll go to sleep tonight and then tomorrow I will wake up and not know anything again, and the next day, and the day after that, for ever. I can’t imagine it. I can’t face it. It’s not life, it’s just an existence, jumping from one moment to the next with no idea of the past, and no plan for the future. It’s how I imagine animals must be. The worst thing is that I don’t even know what I don’t know. There might be lots of things, waiting to hurt me. Things I haven’t even dreamed about yet.’
This novel is a psychological thriller; although suspense kept me turning the pages, I found the philosophical questions more engaging. Several aspects of the plot begged credulity. A very literal reader would likely complain that there were too many gaps in plausibility. I'm willing to suspend disbelief if there's some deeper understanding on the other side. If SJ Watson had to behave like a manic puppeteer to get all the characters where he needed them, I can accept that, because Christine's experience made me sit back and think about aspects of my own psyche that I take for granted. Most of us do take memory for granted. Good memories, bad ones... we'd like to cherish the former and jettison the latter, we lose and retain some of each. Why? Would our lives be different if we'd retained different memories? After reading Before I Go to Sleep, I'm happy to retain any memories.

Older people who suffer senile dementia often return to their childhoods. They may look at their adult children and believe they're seeing their own parents. These folks seem happy and joyful in a childlike way. They don't remember that they've forgotten. Amnesia is different. The amnesiac is painfully aware of the memory loss, just as an amputee feels phantom pains in his missing limb. SJ Watson made Christine's anguish palpable. It's hard to form a connection to a character who has such a tenuous connection to herself, but he pulled it off. I was always rooting for Christine. I'm also rooting for Mr. Watson. I hope he writes another novel.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Weeds in the Garden of Words, by Kate Burridge

I recently stumbled upon a collection of Cambridge University Press e-books. As I browsed the titles, my love for my own field of study, linguistics, came pouring back.  I downloaded several titles and chose this one at random as the first read. It was a good choice, since of all the titles I downloaded, this is the least technical; it's the gentlest re-introduction to the field.  Kate Burridge is an Australian linguist, and Weeds in the Garden of Words is her rambling reflections on philology (the study of words), written for a general audience.

How does she define 'weed'? Gardeners can't agree upon a botanical definition for a weed, and Burridge allows that the linguistic definition is also inexact. Whether spoken, written or green, weeds can be useful and even attractive, but they can also be pernicious. One man's weed is another's ornamental. They often spread rapidly and prove difficult to exterminate; they're hardy. In both cases, "the difficulty is that weeds are context specific. It depends entirely on location and on time whether something is classified as a weed or not." Ultimately, weeds are in the minds of the beholders. If your blood boils every time a dandelion mars your prize lawn, or every time you hear someone say "at this point in time" -- that's a weed.  Yes, says Burridge, weeds are a subjective business:  "As I mentioned earlier, the garden weeds in my Companion to Weeds include some of my most cherished possessions. And so it is with our linguistic weeds. They are totally centred upon the bees that are in our bonnets."

She reminds me that linguists should be neutral, objective observers of language, not arbiters of usage. (I've lapsed in this regard.) She also reminds me that the rise of one language or dialect to pre-eminence is almost never for linguistic reasons. Intrinsic beauty, simplicity or logic does not guarantee linguistic success. Why, for example, isn't Liverpool or Melbourne English the gold standard today?
London English piggy-backed on a series of geographical, cultural, economic and political episodes. These included the emergence of London as a political and commercial centre and its proximity to Oxford and Cambridge; Chaucer’s literary genius; and William Caxton’s first printing presses in Westminster – these had the combined effect of putting London English in such a position that standardization was inevitable.
The problem with establishing a standard, however, is that one is expected to adhere to it. Language is a living thing, always changing -- when a lexical or grammatical weed crops up, it may be all but impossible to stop it once it takes root and starts to spread. Oh, but the purists do try.
Their publications safeguard the language against ‘the boundless chaos of a living speech’, to quote Samuel Johnson again. Johnson had produced in 1755 what was really the first complete dictionary of English. And his intentions were quite clear – to banish what he described as ‘barbarous corruptions’, ‘licentious idioms’ and ‘colloquial barbarisms’. I’m not sure he would have approved of bootylicious or beer goggles.
Burridge discusses the provenance of some lexical weeds which have wrangled their way into English. Many are loan-words, borrowed directly from a foreign language. Bijou, fettucine, and hacienda are examples. Calques, on the other hand, are literal translations of foreign phrases. Ear-worm (a tune that sticks annoyingly in the head) is a calque, translated directly from German ohr-wurm.  For some reason, English seems to borrow more often from French, but translate from German, which is intriguing when we consider that German is a related language. At any rate, we've always been great borrowers: "Our English language is something of a lexical bitser (or mongrel), with around seventy-five per cent of its vocabulary filched from other languages. More than 120 languages, in fact, have contributed to our lexical coffers."

Even a nonsensical expression, if it captures speakers' fancy, may take root and spread. Burridge mentions that 'the cat's pyjamas' came into vogue in the 1920s. There was no stopping it.
In addition to the cat’s whiskers, I’ve uncovered the cat’s miaow, the cat’s eyebrows, the cat’s ankle, tonsils, adenoids, even the cat’s arse. And there are various other cat trappings too, including the cat’s cufflinks, galoshes, and rollerskates.
The variations on the original phrase may have aided the survival of this particular cat-weed.  Other words or phrases appear on the language scene and then die from exhaustion.
Overuse will always take the life out of an expression and there were plenty of ‘lexical zombies’ (to use David Crystal’s label) on this list – between a rock and a hard place, touch base, boggles the mind, bottom line, thinking outside the box, the fact of the matter is, moving the goalposts, pushing the envelope and singing from the same hymn sheet. Others among the walking dead included intensifiers such as absolutely and awesome.
Then we come to the linguistic thistle-bush, the prickly subject of slang. It has always been purists' bugbear. "As someone early last century wrote, ‘slang is to a people’s language what an epidemic disease is to their bodily constitution’."  The impartial linguist, however, points out that slang has its uses. Any teen-ager could tell you that much!
Slang serves the dual purpose of solidarity and secrecy. It indicates membership within a particular group, as well as social distance from the mainstream. At the same time, it prevents bystanders and eavesdroppers from understanding what’s being said.
Eventually, though, the outsiders catch on to the hidden meanings of slang words and phrases. Then they either fade out of use or join mainstream vocabulary. Burridge cites a study showing that about 10% of slang terms gain acceptability in this way.

The definition of a weed can be purely regional.  Having grown up in the US, I had no idea that the word gotten might possibly cause offense.
I’m not sure what it is about the word gotten, but it seems to be a verb form that manages to get up almost everybody’s nose, outside of North America, that is. Ordinary laid-back Australians regularly vent spleen on examples such as It’s gotten more spectacular. ‘The ugliest Americanism’ is how one irate reader of the Canberra Times describes it.
Burridge replies that gotten is actually an older usage, reflecting the fact that the Puritans left England for the colonies much earlier than English prisoners began settling in Oz. Further, there are subtle differences between got and gotten.  (Think about He's got a job vs. He's gotten a job.)  I doubt the Australian attitude, since Burridge's defense, has gotten any better.  And who are those Aussies to judge, with that indescribable accent of theirs?
Indeed, at one time there was a popular theory that attributed the Australian accent to bad dentistry – ill-fitting dentures, in fact. Some writers even talked about a national nose inflammation through excessive amounts of pollen or hay.
On a more serious note, Burridge writes of the links between language and perception. We've all seen the various lexical gyrations when referring to people of different races, as well as the vocabulary we apply to the mentally ill. Nowadays we use euphemism to dance around the stigma of insanity. In the past, we might have said that our insane neighbour was 'a bit funny in the head.'  There was a reason for this.
There is a long history to the perceived link between madness and funny behaviour. Recall that people once visited insane asylums for entertainment – with an entry fee of one penny, Bedlam had an astonishing revenue of about £400 per annum in the early 18th century!
It feels good to return to a linguistics text, even if it's a light-weight one. It's refreshing to step back into the objective study of language as a living, changing system.  Will it stop me gritting my teeth when I next hear someone saying, "So I went like, y'know, and then he was like..." ?  No. I'm only human. Like where's the weed-killer?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Complete Novels, by Jean Rhys

When I read Jane Eyre earlier this year, it triggered my wish to re-read The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.  Rhys (1890-1979) wrote five novels, each about 100 pages long. This collection was only a bit more costly than the one novel I was after, so I clicked it right into the shopping cart.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a dark novel, moldering, smoldering and repressed. It had lost none of its punch on my second reading. Set in the early 19th-century West Indies, it is the biography of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's mad, imprisoned wife, whom Jane Eyre finds so monstrous.  Like Bertha, Jean Rhys was a Creole -- a white woman born in the West Indies -- who was sent off to England under unhappy circumstances. Both women felt out of place in England, even though their white skin exposed them to abuse on their home islands. Both were at the mercy of men who exploited them sexually and controlled them financially. Bertha found her salvation by setting Rochester's house on fire; Jean Rhys found hers by writing. Reading her novels, though, feels much like walking through the ashes and rubble of a life. They're astute, but they hurt.

The first four novels, Voyage in the Dark, Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, and Good Morning, Midnight are more obviously autobiographical, with their contemporary settings and recognisable characters from Rhys' own life. I read the first three, and then flipped ahead to Wide Sargasso Sea. I simply couldn't bear any more young women struggling to survive in London or Paris, dependent upon gifts from ex- or current lovers, always looking for the next affluent man who might offer sanctuary...  In Quartet, a well-meaning older married woman asks the protagonist, Marya, how she plans to survive. Plans? Marya is a bit short on them, and mumbles something about a man.
"Of course," Lois remarked in a reflective voice, "men... a man would possibly... yes, in a way... But this sort of thing must be done carefully, my girl, or it's the most ghastly fiasco. I mean, even if you make up your mind that it's your best way out, you must plan it very carefully, and however carefully you plan it's often a fiasco, it seems to me."
"I don't think I'd ever plan anything out carefully," said Marya, "and certainly not that. If I went to the devil it would be because I wanted to, or because it's a good drug, or because I don't give a damn for my idiotic body of a woman, anyway. And all the people who yap."

Rhys published her first four novels in 1928 - 1935. Her narrators all seem to drift vaguely through life. They occasionally work as singers or dancers but seem constitutionally incapable of holding down a regular job, say, in a shop. When it comes to men, they passively go along, rarely with any enthusiasm, until they reach a breaking point and douse the startled men with stockpiled venom. With each subsequent novel, the prose gains sophistication, the women become more weary and jaded, and the men more perfidious. There was a long interval between these books and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which Rhys' life went into an obscure, isolated hell.

The women in her final novel have developed a bit more spine. They express their anger at the arrogant and clueless Englishmen who marry them. The law still puts the purse-strings under their husbands' control, a perennial recipe for vulnerability and abuse, but money cannot buy understanding of the island culture, especially that of the black community. The novel opens shortly after the abolition of slavery. Annette, a Creole widow, has married Mr. Mason, an Englishman. Her relationship with black neighbours and servants is complex, yet her husband persists in seeing them as simple creatures who, like pack animals, are put there for his use. He scoffs at the notion of obeah, a form of voodoo.
"You don't like, or even recognise, the good in them," she said, "and you won't believe in the other side."
"They're too damn lazy to be dangerous," said Mr. Mason. "I know that."
"They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn't understand."
"No, I don't understand," Mr. Mason always said. "I don't understand at all."
With equal bravado, Mr. Mason similarly disregards warnings from his wife's aunt.
"Live here most of your life and know nothing about the people. It's astonishing. They are children -- they wouldn't hurt a fly."
"Unhappily, children do hurt flies," said Aunt Cora.
Mr. Mason and his young friend Rochester who arrives in Jamaica shortly, are the finest products of the British Empire, masters of whatever domain they decide to inhabit. When his home is burnt, his son is dead, and his wife in an asylum following a mob's attack, Mason simply explains it as a lack of proper civilisation. Certainly he is in no way culpable.

Mr. Mason is the step-father of Antoinette, whom he hastily marries off to young Rochester.  (Rochester later takes to calling her Bertha, for reasons that are never entirely clear to either Antoinette or the reader.)  As he observes his new bride, his doubt and regret start to simmer.
I watched her critically. She wore a tricorne hat which became her. At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting. She never blinks at all it seems to me. Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, they they are not English or European either. And when did I begin to notice all this about my wife Antoinette? After we left Spanish Town I suppose. Or did I notice it before and refuse to admit what I saw? Not that I had much time to notice anything. I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever. 

Like Mason, Rochester makes no effort to understand the black culture of the islands, much to his peril. His initial fascination with the lush vegetation, heavy scents and overall sensuality of the Caribbean quickly turns to self-righteous Victorian disgust. He arrives in this distant land, proceeds to take ownership in a careless fashion, and then recoils when he becomes aware that people and things are not as they are in England. Antoinette's maid -- a known practitioner of obeah -- pleads with him to leave his wife behind when he sails back, but in a fit of possessive pique, he refuses: "She is mine, mine!"  When Bertha/Antoinette pads off on her final foray down the corridor of his English house with the lit candle, full of purpose and clarity, I can't help but give her my admiration and blessing. He had it coming.

As I read what I've written about these novels, they sound purely dismal. They are not sunny books, to be sure, but Rhys' linguistic economy is a marvel. With very lean prose, she draws us into a complete world in a hundred or so pages. In Wide Sargasso Sea, she transplants Charlotte Bronte's two characters across the Atlantic, where she imbues them with more power than their creator could have imagined. Diana Athill, in the introduction to this collection, commented on Rhys' relationship with language.
She fell in love with words when she was a child, but she never used them rhetorically, to show them off.I have sometimes thought that the way she wrote resembled the way a cat moves (she liked cats). Her language does what it needs to do with an elegance and an economy which is perfectly natural and easy... or rather, easy-seeming. 
I can't imagine anyone envying Jean Rhys' life, but I do wish I had her skill. I wonder if they're inseparable.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Self's Deception, by Bernhard Schlink

This is the second of three (to date) novels featuring private investigator Gerhard Self. It's no surprise that Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, would give us an introspective, brooding detective.

Self, hired to locate a missing young woman, quickly falls into a tangled web of misinformation. His employer is not who he claims to be. The police are also seeking the young woman, but they won't say why. An alleged attack on a US military base in one location actually happened at a different base, and there may or may not have been old stockpiles of poison gas involved. Even the political radicals have capitalist motives. Self isn't the only one deceived and deceiving; as the cover suggests, it's hard to tell up from down.

Bernhard Schlink, when he's not writing novels, is writing legal briefs. He enjoyed his tenure as a judge, he mentioned in an interview with The Guardian, because judges, unlike philosophers, cannot sit and ponder the facts indefinitely. They must reach a decision; there must be closure. And so it is with Self's Deception: Schlink throws a heap of conflicting facts onto his detective's desk, and Self must work through them, determine as best he can what is true and what's not, come to a conclusion, and then hope he was correct. Self-examination is a necessary part of the process for Self. I don't think many American detectives are as introspective.

I confess, I'm still a novice when it comes to crime novels, but one can't help but notice that most fictional detectives are walking cardiac arrests. They drink, they smoke, they eat unwholesome food. Couldn't someone give us a detective who drinks green tea, snacks on hummus and meditates?  Or would that be completely implausible?  Here's how Self starts his day:

I opened my desk drawer and took out a box of coffee beans, a bottle of sambuca, and a glass, and filled it. Then I sat down in my chair, cracked the beans between my teeth, and let the clear, oily sambuca roll over my tongue and down my throat. It burned, and the smoke of my first cigarette stung my chest.

The cigarette, by the way, is an unfiltered Sweet Afton. No detective worth his salt would bother about filters, right? Somewhere it's also written in stone that fictional detectives must be single -- widowed, divorced, or at least fending off a potential marriage partner -- and should be living alone with a pet. Self lives with Turbo, the tomcat, and resists the advances of Brigitte, who would quite possibly feed him (and his cat) a healthier diet.
My usual waiter Giovanni was on vacation in Italy, and the spaghetti gorgonzola was too heavy. My girlfriend, Brigitte, could have made me a better meal. But the previous weekend she'd seemed a little too hopeful that I might learn to let her spoil me: “Will you be my cuddly old tomcat?” I don't want to become some old tomcat.

Self is a captivating character, even if he doesn't want to be Brigitte's old tomcat, and his reflections on Germany's wartime past and on murder in general are thought-provoking. Someone suggests to him that a psychiatrist may have been killed as part of a robbery. Self thinks not.
People don't murder simply for money. In fact, they murder for one reason, and one reason only: to save their life's illusions. There's the one who murders out of jealousy: If my beloved is dead, she's mine and nobody can take her away from me, not a lover, not she herself. There's the one who kills as a professional: He knows no trade, is nothing, but wants to hold his own in a world in which professional success makes the man. Tyrants murder because they want to be greater than they are and are murdered in turn because somebody wants the world to be a better place than it is. There is collective murder for collective illusions -- the history of the twentieth century is riddled with it. Then of course there is also murder sparked by greed. But its aim is not to gather and hoard money: It, too, aims to salvage dreams of greatness and eminence.

This, I think, is a somewhat noble vision of murder -- I can't find a space in this picture for, say, the addict who kills out of desperation to fill his next syringe -- but then, Self is a noble man. He grows frustrated with a young witness who answers him in mumbles and monosyllables: "I simply can't keep up with the ways of the young. Is this modern tongue-tiedness? Modern introversion? Verbal anorexia?"  

Self often shares information with a police inspector whom he has known for years. In this book, the two men find themselves at odds and, in her attempt to bring them back into amity, the policeman's wife suggests that they begin to address each other informally. German has both formal and informal pronouns, and it struck me that these two men, having known each other for so long, might still be using the formal ones. Maybe this, too, is changing. Perhaps Germans are growing more casual with their speech and manners. I suppose Self is not so different from all of us grumpy, old, nostalgic people who suspect the world is going to hell in a handbasket. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone is the full title of this memoir. Coleman's childhood on a Maine farm drew me to this book -- it sounded similar in many ways to my own -- but I rather dreaded that it might fall into the blame-the-parents genre:  "I grew up with root vegetables and without Dallas, and my psychotherapist thinks I may never be right." Blessedly, Melissa Coleman is alive, well, living in Maine, and on close terms with both her parents. This is not a blame-hurling book.

This blog is about books, not about me, but I have difficulty viewing this book with total objectivity, because so many of Coleman's observations echo my own past. Her parents were highly-educated people who came "from away" (as the Mainers say of anyone not born in that state) to get back to the land in the early 1970s. They admired the work and philosophy of Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of The Good Life, and it was from the Nearings that the Colemans bought their 60 acres near the coast. Eliot and Sue (Papa and Mama, as Coleman always calls them), built their house by hand, drew their water from the well that Eliot dug, lit with kerosene, heated with wood, grew their vegetables. My own parents did not go off the grid to that extent -- we had running water and electricity in the house -- but we did grow most of our own food, my mother preserving it for the winters in various ways, and we did heat with wood. My parents were omnivorous; Coleman's were vegetarian. My parents were about 20 years older than the Colemans, and their choices were somewhat more moderate, but they would have admired the staggering amounts of work and knowledge the Colemans put into their homestead, and they would have relished Melissa Coleman's observations of Maine's natural beauty as much as I did.

Readers know from the title that the Colemans' homesteading experience didn't end happily. Cynics can sneer and dismiss the story as one more piece of documentary evidence that Utopia doesn't exist. This isn't, however, a story about a Utopian dream that failed to materialise. Eliot and Sue Coleman had and attained vast stores of knowledge and skill, and they expended Herculean amounts of work. As Melissa points out more than once, if they didn't grow and preserve enough food to get them through a winter, they would go hungry. They were not playing at this, and moreover, they succeeded for nearly a decade. Their life on the homestead did not come to an end because it had been an unrealistic goal. They did not quit from exhaustion or sense of failure; both parents still believed deeply in the values that had driven them there at the start. It was the unravelling of their health and their marriage that undid the Colemans' farm. Without two healthy adults working at full capacity and in tandem, there is simply no way to sustain this lifestyle. And, as Melissa illustrates, both the Nearings, then very elderly, and the Colemans took in any number of volunteers, young people who were willing to work to gain knowledge of organic farming methods and self-sufficiency. The presence of young, pretty interns who favoured skinny-dipping and nude gardening also took its toll on the Colemans' marriage, even as it helped with the workload.

Sue Coleman suffered from anxiety and depression, especially post-partum depression after the birth of her three daughters. Only later did Melissa realise that the vegetarian diet very likely contributed to her mother's mood swings. This is also one of a few gentle jabs she takes at the Nearings, her parents' mentors, for failing to disclose the various things they obtained from beyond the boundaries of their own land. She later mentions a crate of oranges and avocados they'd imported surreptitiously from Florida and ate in great secrecy.
Of vitamin B’s many variations, B12—which assists in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system—is not found in plants, leaving vegetarians deficient. The Nearings later admitted to getting B12 shots to supplement their diet, but did not widely discuss this fact, as it contradicted their claims of self-sufficiency.

Eliot Coleman developed hyper-thyroidism. His instinct to lose himself in physical work was both a symptom and an aggravating factor. For several years he resisted both surgery and medication, trying to treat the problem by altering his diet, just as he used different organic fertilisers to feed the soil on the premise that pests will not attack healthy plants. His dietary tactic failed, and Sue, struggling with her own moods, watched his hyperactivity carry him even further from her.

One of the visitors to the Colemans' homestead remarked that it was paradise. Her companion replied to her, "The very nature of paradise is that it will be lost." Paradise may or may not be eternal, but I have always imagined it as unremittingly pleasant. Melissa Coleman makes very plain the joys and enormous risks involved in their lifestyle. I don't think it sounds purely idyllic to anyone who gives it more than a passing thought. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that this lifestyle requires teamwork and total commitment, ideally of multiple families. This is not a life for the solitary sort.  A solitary life requires money, and, as Coleman mentions, many in the world can't afford the luxury of solitude.
That my parents had chosen this lifestyle over an easier one wouldn't matter in the moment when the goats had eaten the spring lettuce, there was nothing left in the root cellar, the drinking water was muddy with runoff, and there was no money under the couch for gas to get to town -- not to mention that the Jeep's registration had expired, and we had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on. We were living the way much of the world actually lives. On the other hand, we didn't have phone, water, or electrical bills; health insurance premiums; or a mortgage, a car payment, or any other monthly payment, for that matter. No one could come to shut off our utilities and take away our home.
Mama nodded at Papa over the dinner table and smiled, salad dressing shining on her lips. When eating a good meal, with our feet under our own table, we felt that we were, indeed, royalty...  I hover close here because I understand that our survival lay in that exchange, and in the precarious balance of Mama's and Papa's emotional investment in our lifestyle. To succeed at this life, they had to constantly feed their vision of it, or it would wither and die. 

This is not a story of a failed experiment, nor a snap-shot of a past era, a time when going 'back to the earth' and 'back to nature' happened to be in vogue. It's completely relevant today. Those of us who live in cities, who flip switches and turn taps for light and water, who buy our foods rather than growing them -- we need to be mindful of our place in it all. We need to remember that our lives are also full of uncertainty: what happens when potable water stops coming from the tap? Where does the food come from, and what if it fails to show up? What happens when the chemicals have killed the soil, or when the farmers have all given up and moved to the cities? The Colemans are not utopian, escapist crackpots, nor were the Nearings before them, and we don't necessarily need to move into the Maine woods to learn from them. Buying locally, organically grown produce might be a simple way to start.

Two other books that complement this one beautifully are Michael Pollan's An Omnivore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.