Saturday, November 24, 2012

4... 5... 6..., by Kuan Guat Choo

I recorded this novel for Malaysian Association for the Blind on special request. It's the third novel by the Penangite author.  It opens during the years of the Japanese occupation, when a Malay farmer goes to check on his Chinese neighbours. He finds their home abandoned, their dogs shot, and he hears whimpering from beneath the house. Cowering there he sees little LiLian, his daughter's playmate, dirty and hungry, with no memory of what happened to the rest of her family.  He takes her home, and as she sleeps, she repeatedly murmurs "Si... ng... lok..." or "four... five... six..." in Hokkien.

Malay House at Balik Pulau,
watercolour by Ch'ng Kiah Kiean
Fearful that whoever killed the girl's family will come to finish the job, the farmer takes her by bicycle to his brother's home in Penang. Othman and Jamilah have no children of their own and are delighted to raise little orphaned LiLian.

Ms. Kuan uses the years of LiLian's childhood and adolescence to paint an evocative picture of life in a Penang kampong during the 1950s, when there was greater harmony between the races and religions as they enjoyed each other's customs and celebrations and grieved together at very different funeral rites. In the 1960s, Li Lian and her closest friends discuss having careers in a way that their mothers never had. Even well into her young adulthood, Li Lian continues to have nightmares, continues to murmur "Si... ng... lok" as she sleeps, although her waking mind has no memory of her original family.

She laughingly accepts the last piece of cake at her friends' weddings, indifferent to the superstition that doing so will render her a lifelong old maid. She doesn't mind, she says, she has a sense that there is a matter that needs to be cleared up before she would marry anyway.  Her plans, however, are disrupted when she falls in love with the Chinese man who has assiduously courted her for three years. She finally capitulates and marries him. As a reader, I began to fear a saccharine happily-ever-after ending with Li Lian's nightmares happily resolving into connubial bliss, but Ms. Kuan isn't a Mills & Boon author. Hours after the birth of her first child, Li Lian has a searing memory of her childhood.

She soon leaves the baby with an amah and goes back to the village where she was born, demanding answers from the Malay neighbour who had found her. At least, when she sees the house again, she remembers how she came to be beneath it, and what she saw when looking out through the front steps.  Her adoptive parents and friends advise her to forgive, to try to forget, to focus on a bright future for herself, her husband and her child, but Li Lian cannot let go of the wartime horror. She cannot find peace until she wreaks revenge. She recalls her Chinese grandfather's motto: Cut grass, sever roots.

This is an excruciating portrait of the lasting wounds that can fester through generations following war. It's also a well-crafted image of the cheerful coexistence between Malaysia's ethnic communities, and I pray that continues and grows.

A captious sort of day

I made the acquaintance of a new word yesterday. At least I don't recall meeting it before. It caught my attention when I was reading John O'Hara's The Lockwood Concern.
"I thought I'd say something to get you into a different mood. You've been very captious since you got here, and I don't enjoy that."
"I'm very sorry, Geraldine."
The Kindle's built-in dictionary defines captious as "tending to find fault or raise petty objections".

Captious cat offers a bit more:

1. apt to notice and make much of trivial faults or defects; faultfinding; difficult to please.
2. proceeding from a faultfinding or caviling disposition, example: He could never praise without adding a captious remark.

What a useful word! I am often captious, and I'd much rather admit to it than to being nitpicky, hypercritical or judgemental.

I like captious. It's a practical and unpretentious word. It seems unbelievable that I'd never seen it before yesterday afternoon, or at least had never noticed it before. Then last night, I was reading Helen Hoover Santmyer's ...And the Ladies of the Club, and would you look...!
Anne, who was in a captious mood that fall, thought, "Another body to act as librarian-for-a-day!" Mrs. Beattie had never volunteered for that chore, but now it would be a responsibility. 
Is this a dazzling coincidence, or is captious a quite commonly used word that I've somehow managed never to notice all these years?  After two meetings in a day, I'm not likely to forget it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Spire, by William Golding

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds,
by John Constable
A former colleague once told me that he never reads fiction. His reason? He said that he preferred to learn facts, and fiction... well, fiction is fabrication.

It may well be a sign of my intellectual torpor, but I will never likely reach for a history of the Salisbury Cathedral, nor for any volumes discussing the feats required to erect its 401-foot spire (presently the highest cathedral spire in England). What Mr. Golding gives me, though, is an obsessed cathedral dean, Jocelin, and the master builder he has chosen to do his work, Roger Mason. As the former hauls himself up the scaffolding and ladders into the unfinished spire and sees the countryside for miles around, feeling affirmed that he is doing the work God requested, and as the latter battles his nauseating fear of heights, I realise the enormity of the Spire, in a way that I never could, even by visiting the cathedral and climbing the steps myself, alongside other tourists. Dean Jocelin heard the supporting pillars first scream, then bend. (They are still bent today, bearing the great weight of the spire, added in the 14th century.) The faithless Mason told him the task was impossible, but Jocelin believed that it was ordained by God, physics notwithstanding. These particular characters may not have existed, but someone was driven to build a colossal spire atop this 10th-century church, and it most certainly required mountains of stone, courage and ingenuity to accomplish it. Non-fiction can give us the facts, some more captivating than others, but only fiction can really elicit the emotions -- the vision, despair, fear, rage and elation -- which were all most surely part of every inch of the spire's construction, just as surely as the mortar.

When we look at the soaring spaces of ancient cathedrals and mosques today, it's all too easy to forget that their designers had no computers, and their builders had no cranes. Throughout the novel, Dean Jocelin asks himself and others, "Has it fallen yet?" Roger Mason, the master builder, repeatedly tells him that the task is impossible. As the spire rises, driven mostly by Jocelin's passion -- and his alone, as the other clerics quietly disapprove -- the human toll rises alongside it.
...and when a workman fell through the hole above the crossways, and left a scream scored all the way down the air, which was so thick it seemed to keep the scream as something mercilessly engraved there, he did not wonder that no miracle interposed between the body and the logical slab of stone that received it. Father Anselm said nothing in Chapter; but he saw from the sacrist's indignant stare how this death had been added to some account that one day would be presented.

The master builder baulks more than once, first ranting then pleading to be let go from this hopeless task. Jocelin likewise pleads and then connives to hold him to the contract, and "the army" of his labourers as well. God has ordained their partnership, and although Roger Mason is an irreverent drunk, he is still the man best qualified for the job. Roger may not hear God's command, but Jocelin intends to convey it.
 "My son. When such a work is ordained, it is put into the mind of a, of a man. That's a terrible thing. I'm only learning now, how terrible it is. It's a refiner's fire. The man knows a little perhaps of the purpose, but nothing of the cost--why can't they keep quiet out there? Why don't they stand quietly and wait? No. You and I were chosen to do this thing together. It's a great glory. I see now it'll destroy us of course. What are we, after all? Only I tell you this, Roger, with the whole strength of my soul. The thing can be built and will be built, in the very teeth of Satan. You'll build it because nobody else can. They laugh at me, I think; and they'll probably laugh at you. Let them laugh. It's for them, and their children. But only you and I, my son, my friend, when we've done tormenting ourselves and each other, will know what stones and beams and lead and mortar went into it..."
The construction of course wreaks havoc in the everyday life of the cathedral. Normal services move elsewhere as the excavations below the floor of the nave burrow into ancient graves and loose noxious odours. Blocks of stone fall from above. And then, of course, there is the noise from the groaning pillars. Alone in the cathedral, Jocelin pauses to question whether those voices and songs and messages are coming from within or without.
Silence from the crossways. He thought to himself: It's not the stones singing. It's inside my head.
The original care-taker of the cathedral, a lame man, is driven away by the taunting of the pack of builders. His wife, Goody Pangall, begins an affair with Roger Mason. Jocelin takes note of this and is horrified, partially because he has been battling his own forbidden attraction to the red-haired young woman. When he realises that her husband has fled and that she is bearing Roger's child, he thinks he must do something to help her. He is, however, distracted by his own process of creation, one with divine parentage. His more human obligations take lower priority.
If she seemed about to come near, she circled him quickly, looking away and hurrying on, head down as if he were an unlucky corner, or a ghost, or the grave of a suicide. But he knew that she was only ashamed with the shame of a deserted woman; and her shame squeezed his heart. But my will has other business than to help, he thought. I have so much will, it puts all other business by. I am like a flower that is bearing fruit.
He sees flashes of Goody's red hair, whether she's actually present or not, representing the mortal temptations that might distract him from his work. As he kneels to pray, however, he feels the "warmth" of the angel at his back, an angel who appears to guide and comfort him with increasing frequency. At the end, we learn that the warmth at his back is a terminal consumption. The angel (and would the sense of a terminal disease not have the same effect?) keeps him on track, banishing the demonic distractions, driving him to complete the spire.
Often, his angel stood at his back; and this exhausted him, for the angel was a great weight of glory to bear, and bent his spine. Moreover, after a visit by the angel--as if to keep him in his humility--Satan was given leave to torment him, seizing him by the loins, so that it became indeed an unruly member.
In one of my favourite images in the novel, Jocelin climbs up into the unfinished spire on a summer night on which the workmen have all quit early. Golding makes only a veiled reference, but it was enough to remind me of the cathedral's proximity to Stonehenge. In the 14th century, it's all too plausible that the Church was still battling for souls with the old ways, and that Jocelin would view his spire as a competitor with the dolmens atop the hill.
He saw a fire on the rim and guessed it was a haystack burning; but as he moved round the rim of the cone, he saw more and more fires round the rim of the world. Then a terrible dread fell on him, for he knew these were the fires of Midsummer Night, lighted by the devil-worshippers out on the hills. Over there, in the valley of the Hanging Stones, a vast fire shuddered brightly. All at once he cried out, not in terror but in grief. For he remembered his crew of good men, and he knew why they had knocked off work and where they were gone. So he shouted aloud in anger at someone. "They are good men! I say so!" But this was only one feeling. Inside them, his mind knew what it knew. "It's another lesson. The lesson for this height. Who could have foreseen that this was part of the scheme? Who could know that at this height the thing I thought of as a stone diagram of prayer would lift up a cross and fight eye to eye with the fires of the devil?"
Mr. Golding does not tie things up neatly at the end of his novel. Roger Mason, now a crippled drunk living above a pub, fails to make peace with the dying and half-mad Jocelin. Goody Pangall has died in childbirth. The spire is unfinished. But we know it will be finished, and we know (unlike Jocelin, who dies asking if it has fallen yet) that it will stand for at least another 700 years. What this novel gives us is the knowledge that someone long ago was consumed -- by madness, piety, grandiosity, or glory -- to build an impossibility of a spire. It was something no average man or woman would have ventured. If I ever visit Salisbury and see the spire, I will see it with proper reverence, because Golding's fictional characters brought the reality of its construction to life. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Celibate, by Michael Arditti

I read a very enticing review of Mr. Arditti's most recent novel, Jubilate, but I couldn't find a copy of it, so I settled on The Celibate, which was his first. What is it about? Sexuality and Catholicism.  And homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, death, and anti-Semitism, with side orders of Jack the Ripper and the Black Plague. Writing a first novel on any one of these themes is audacious -- tackling all of them is an act of literary heroism. Or madness.

The narrator is in fact telling his story to his psychotherapist, whom his superiors at St. Dunstan's ordered him to see when he attacked a fellow ordinand during Mass. This is a young man who takes his religion very seriously, far more seriously in fact than he takes psychology.
I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul. 
He comes from a wealthy family, and his speech betrays his top-shelf education and -- despite his best efforts to the contrary -- reveals hints of his inner pain and desperate loneliness. He rambles on about his mother and her twin brother.
It must be marvellous to be a twin: to have another being so attuned to you that he can understand your innermost feelings better than you can yourself. To have someone you can trust as much as yourself, to be your other self, so that the whole of your life can be as harmonious as the resolution of a Shakespearean comedy.
In his early teens, he tells the psychotherapist, he saw his vocation to become a Catholic priest in a flash. He knew with unshakable certainty that this was to be his path, and he'd never swerved from it. It was the fellow ordinand's irreverent interpretation of one of the Gospels that sent him into his blind rage during Mass. He hints that there may have been a somewhat unusually strong emotional bond between the two young men, but the real issue was the blasphemous sermon. Our narrator would have his therapist know that he is asexual in thought and deed.

As his career as a priest is suspended, if not finished, our narrator goes out to minister to the down-and-out on his own, and the first needy souls he stumbles across are young male hustlers. He is appalled that they mistrust him, believing him to be another hung-up, rich john who is just leading them on a merry chase. When one of them, Rees, finally realises the priest's genuine naivete, he takes advantage of it to rob him of his briefcase, which he knows to contain the priest's psychiatric drugs. Initially repelled by Jack, the tough who pimps these young men, the priest falls into a bondage and domination relationship with him, coming face to face with his own sexuality with the aid of pain and humiliation. Not surprisingly, he interprets this as the ultimate abasement and pact with the devil, and he has a breakdown.

When he returns to therapy after his hospitalisation, he announces that he has met a man named Mark and fallen deeply in love. For the first time, he can synthesise love and sex. Mark's ex-lover, Adrian, begins his decline due to AIDS, and the narrator is pulled into the whirl of those who are infected and afflicted. He has also given up his part-time job leading historic tours of Jack the Ripper's London, and has begun instead guiding a tour of the 'plague cottages' in a rural village which was especially hard-hit during the 14th century. (Each chapter of the book opens with his presentation to those on his tour and then resumes with his therapist.) The pace at which that the narrator (who remains nameless throughout) reveals details of his psyche and his past to the therapist rings very true. Odd and tragicomic childhood memories slip out during moments of uncomfortable silence, such as the collision between the young man's Catholic devotions and his very traditional Jewish aunt.
I set up a makeshift altar in my mother's dressing-room where I performed my solitary office every day, until my aunt chanced to discover me. She'd noticed wisps of smoke and was afraid of another fire; I must have been over-enthusiastic in my swinging of the thurible -- or rather the kitchen scales which were standing in for it -- even then. And she... I'm sorry; I know I shouldn't laugh, but from the look of horror on her face you'd have thought she'd seen a ghost. Although I suppose in a way she had. For in the absence of anything tailor-made I was wearing my mother's wedding-dress as a surplice and her lace shawl as a cope. She was appalled by my appearance and still more so when she discovered its purpose. I think she'd have found even transvestitism preferable to transsubstantiation.
Mr. Arditti's past history as a playwright shines through as characters re-enter the story as if cued, often having undergone significant costume changes. Jack the B&D man returns as Krishnan, having found his new spirituality in India. Rees resurfaces with his friend Jason, the lover and care-taker of the narrator's uncle  (his later mother's twin brother), who is now dying of AIDS. This reunion brings another entirely traumatic childhood memory back to the surface. He reaches the stage of forgiveness with unlikely speed and grace, but that's perhaps another mark of the playwright's pacing.

One last character must return to the stage: Jonathan, the priest whose homily inspired the narrator's mad outburst. Jonathan becomes the guide, the mentor who will make the final efforts to heal the jagged wound between the narrator's sexuality and spirituality.  It was not God who proscribed sexuality, he finally grasps, but Augustine. Chastity is no longer prerequisite for holiness.
In the same way I once heard the Archbishop of Westminster claim that every time he saw a mentally handicapped person he knew that he was in the presence of a saint, and I rebelled, since it seemed the most cloying, conventional and condescending kind of Catholicism -- with the inability to doubt an inevitable adjunct of the inability to reason. But I've come to realise that the essence of sainthood lies in the ability to inspire saintliness in others...
I found this a remarkable novel, but so did the reviewers for the Independent, Capitol Gay, and the Catholic Herald. I imagine these three publications find little common ground on most issues, but they were unanimous in their praise for this book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The History Man, by Malcolm Bradbury

This is another from the list of Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels, which I continue to explore with very gratifying results. It's a wonderfully catholic list, the only requirements being that the books are written in English and between the years of 1939 and 1983 (the year in which Burgess published the list).  I appreciate that some of the novels are not the authors' best known, such as William Faulkner's The Mansion and William Golding's The Spire (which I am reading now). Three of Aldous Huxley's novels made the list, but Brave New World wasn't one of them. The list has also introduced me to authors  -- I owe my enjoyment of William Sansom's The Body and Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day to Mr. Burgess' list.  

I expect Malcolm Bradbury is a familiar name to those in the UK. I sheepishly admit I was thinking of Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, when I copied The History Man to my Kindle. This highlights another pro and con of e-books. The con: an e-book has no back cover on which to print a synopsis. The pro: You copy it onto the Kindle and see how it goes. If you love the book, it's a victory, and if you loathe it, the delete button presents itself. I read this novel at Pagoda Rocks in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and in that setting, its academic satire certainly felt as otherworldly as Ray Bradbury's science fiction. 
Anthony Sher played Howard Kirk in the BBC adaption.
Some of Bradbury's satire is timeless, poking fun at the pomposity and pretensions of academics regardless of century, never mind decade. But who can resist mocking the 1970s? Howard Kirk, the title character, is a delicious, despicable combination of arrogance and self-indulgence.  I admit my own academic snobbery here: Howard Kirk is a professor of Sociology, a field of study which often met with derision from students at my college who considered it a discipline for dolts. If it could even be termed a discipline...  Bradbury's portrayal of the voluble, six-hour department meeting suggests that it surely cannot.

As the novel opens, Professor Howard Kirk and his wife, Barbara, are planning a party with a sociologically interesting petri dish of guests. The setting is to be their multi-storey, previously condemned apartment block in fictional Watermouth (which bears a suspicious resemblance to Brighton). The Kirks moved into it as squatters and later convinced the council to let them stay. Being liberals, the idea of buying property was uncomfortable. When Howard's friend and colleague, Henry Beamish, had taken them around to find lodging, the Kirks' oh-so-liberal sensibilities became evident. 
Now and then Henry stopped the car, and they got out, and solemnly examined a property. Henry's taste in property had been transformed, become rural and bourgeois; he praised, mysteriously, 'advantages' like paddocks and stables. The Kirks stood and stared, peering through trees at hills. Never having encountered a property before, they had no idea how to behave in the presence of one; they knew their radical desires were being subtly threatened and impaired, even though Henry told them what was true, that they had more money now, that a mortgage was a good investment for the advance, that the time in their lives, with a second baby, was here when they should settle down. But down was not where they wanted to settle; a hideous deceit seemed to be being practised; Henry, having already destroyed himself, was seeking to inculpate them too.
The Kirks are not impoverished -- Howard has published two books and assumed his post on the faculty of Watermouth University -- but they are hardly about to become bourgeouis. They must find a way to merge their liberal socialist values with their new income and status. Barbara takes thermos jugs of coffee to the drug addicts in the derelict block next-door, for example.  They don't fit in, either with the vagrants or with the other academics.
Howard's two books being now staple radical documents in that expanding market, their jeans and caftans are rather more expensive than those of most of the people they know. But it is invisible expense, inconspicuous unconsumption, and it creates no distances and makes them no enemies, except for the enemies who were always their enemies. The Kirks are very attractive, very buoyant, very aggressive people, and, even if you dislike or distrust them, or are disturbed by them (and they mean to be disturbing), very good company.
Howard is a creature of his time, a "man of history", using his academic jargon to justify his sexual permissiveness and dismissing traditional marriage as a stultifying example of outdated gender roles. The Kirks shall not be a part of such oppression. (Yet Barbara is often left with the care of the children as Howard pursues his flings with students, many of whom in turn are lured into the Kirk household as nannies and scullery maids.)

The Kirks began their investigation of an open marriage when Howard lusted after students, and a young Egyptian man took a fancy to Barbara. Their explications of this situation differed somewhat.
'I think,' says Howard now, 'the purpose he had in mind, natural enough from his cultural standpoint, was to establish intimacy between the male parties. We have to recognize his culturally determined view of women.'
'My God,' says Barbara, 'he just liked me.'
The beauty of  academic pseudo-science (oops, there's my inner academic snob again...) is that it concocts the vocabulary to justify its every whim.  And moreover, to bash anyone who dares disagree, such as the gentle, more traditional Henry Beamish.
'That's because you're bourgeois now, Henry. You have the spirit of a bourgeois.'
'No, I don't,' said Henry, 'that's nasty. I'm trying to give my life a little dignity without robbing anyone else of theirs. I'm trying to define an intelligent, liveable, unharming culture, Howard.'
'Oh, Christ,' said Howard, 'evasive quietism.'
And the blissfully liberated Kirks... Are they really happy? Bradbury assesses their condition mid-novel and mid-life and arrives at a different adjective.
They have a strong sense of something that was undelivered then, and a hazy dream still shimmers ahead of them: a world of expanded minds, equal dealings, erotic satisfactions, beyond the frame of reality, beyond the limits of the senses. They remain in their terrace house, and they stand somehow still on the fulcrum between end and beginning, in a history where an old reality is going and a new one coming, living in a mixture of radiance and radical indignation, burning with sudden fondnesses, raging with sudden hates, waiting for a plot, the plot of historical inevitability, to come and fulfil the story they had begun in bed in Leeds after Hamid had slept with Barbara. They are busy people.
Howard carries on an affair with Flora Beniform, a colleague who uses her lovers as research fodder. Much as he would like to convince himself that their relationship is a purely physical and cerebral affair, Howard's emotions occasionally slip out and reveal a wee bit of neediness. Flora responds by telling him that she has no time for him next week and then explaining why the traditional marriage -- with the professional husband and stay-at-home wife/mother -- can't work.
'He talks all day to pretty students who know all about structuralism, and have read Parsons and Dahrendorf, and can say "charisma" properly, and understand the work he's doing. Then he comes home to a wife who's been dusting and cleaning. He says "Parsons" and "Dahrendorf", and she says "Huh?" What can he do? He either gives her a tutorial, and thinks she's pretty B minus, or he shuts up and eats the ratatouille.'
Howard Kirk's ugliest side comes out not in response to his female students or colleagues, however, but in reaction to George Carmody, a student who refuses to conform by becoming non-comformist. Carmody is who he is: an unfashionably diligent student, an earnest young man.  
He has changed most, and changed by not changing at all. Here he sits, in his chair, looking beamingly around; as he does so, he shines forth unreality. He is a glimpse from another era; a kind of historical offence. In the era of hair, his face is perfectly clean-shaven, so shaven that the fuzz of peach-hair on his upper features looks gross against the raw epidermis on his cheeks and chin, where the razor has been. The razor has also been round the back of his neck, to give him a close, neat haircut. From some mysterious source, unknown and in any case alien to all other students, he has managed to acquire a university blazer, with a badge, and a university tie; these he wears with a white shirt, and a pair of pressed grey flannels. His shoes are brightly polished; so, as if to match, is his briefcase. He is an item, preserved in some extraordinary historical pickle, from the nineteen-fifties or before; he comes out of some strange fold in time. He has always been like this, and at first his style was a credit; wasn't it just a mock-style to go with all the other mock-styles in the social parody? But this is the third year; he has been out of sight for months, and here he is again, and he has renewed the commitment; the terrible truth seems clear. It is no joke; Carmody wants to be what he says he is.
Howard Kirk simply cannot abide George Carmody. He gives him failing marks, and when the student files a grievance with higher authorities, claiming that Professor Kirk has shown favoritism to the female students with whom he has sexual relationships, Kirk resolves to destroy him. Carmody repeatedly asserts that Kirk is not rejecting his work, but rejecting him as a human being, and none of Kirk's jargon can absolve him of this charge. He has no more success clearing himself of the claims of rampant sexual misconduct, as Carmody and his camera have captured most of them on film.
'An outside eye's sometimes illuminating,' says Miss Callendar, 'and of course, as Henry James says, the house of fiction has many windows. Your trouble is you seem to have stood in front of most of them.'
The novel ends as it began, with a party in the Kirk household, complete with the illicit frolics in dark corners, sodden discussions about socialism, and hands thrust through window panes. There is no such thing as an accident, Howard maintains.