Monthly Archives: March 2013

THE INVISIBLE MOUNTAIN and the Purpose of Literature

MSW

I did a short note on  Carolina de Robertis’s novel The Invisible Mountain in a recent Books for Readers Newsletter, and I recommended the book then and do now.  It’s a wonderful book.

It also makes me think again about whether and when this or any novel– keeping in mind that the strong suit of all novels is specificity and concreteness– goes beyond using history and political movements as background. The Invisible Mountain does that background beautifully and naturally. It puts the history and social movements of Uruguay and Argentina to wonderful use and brings them to life. What did I know about the history of that region before I read this novel?  I’d heard of the Tupamaros, and I could sing one line of “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

The politics is admirably organic. Working class people seem extremely sophisticated in their understanding of power relations.  In one branch of the central family, everyone is a communist, and an uncle goes to fight for the revolution in Cuba.  Not a lot is made of it– it’s just who they are.  I love the way it is just there, part of this family, part of Uruguay.

So in some ways, I feel like De Robertis is lucky simply to have received a world with considerable political sophistication.  Her working class people are so different from the ones I grew up among.  Even members of the United Mine Workers I knew used to separate their enthusiasm for the union from any critique of the social system.

SE

I think what you’re commenting on here is a reality: that working-class and oppressed people in much if not all the rest of the world are much more politically aware, much more, yes I’ll say it, class-conscious, than are those in the United States. It seems to me that most people in this country are quite ignorant politically and historically–not their fault, I hasten to add, rather a result of an educational system that’s designed to suppress class consciousness and social awareness, and mass media that continue the work. Go to Cuba, as I did in 1996 with a group of labor union activists, or to Chile, or Mexico, or Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and have a conversation with any person on the street; she or he will know more about U.S. history and current events than almost anyone from the U.S. will, and of course it goes without saying that the U.S. person will know next to nothing about Latin America. Or just stay here, and go to the annual May Day rally in Union Square, where you’ll meet immigrants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, who brought with them to this country their experiences and lessons of workers’ struggle, and who are not burdened with this nonsense about “we’re all middle class” or “entrepeneurship is the way forward” that so hobbles folks here. And of course there is a stronger, more recent– present-day, in fact!– current of out-and-out anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, revolutionary activism throughout Latin America. I agree with you that The Invisible Mountain reflects all this. And like you, I loved how the political context is seamlessly woven into the story.

The way the Cuban Revolution, Che, etc., are referenced in this novel is accurate and honest. We’re so used in this country to fiction that demonizes revolutionary leaders and portrays revolutionary activists as cynical manipulative egotistical monsters that it’s startling to come across a novel that does not. That simply portrays how it was and is. I didn’t have to brace myself, or cringe, or curse, as I so often must. It’s honest. Not sugarcoated, not fake or starry-eyed, but also not stacked against the fighters, the ones who try to make things better. They’re flawed but genuine, and they suffer.

What moves me are the three S’s: suffering, solidarity and struggle. Human suffering is or ought to be the great topic of literature, maybe of all art, I think. But I don’t want only to cry. I want the whole grand canvas, which is how suffering leads to solidarity and solidarity begets struggle. De Robertis achieves this in her novel.

MSW:

Very well put– the cringe factor any left-leaning reader gets used to when something political pops up in an American novel. It’s likely to be embarrassing or else lead to an explosion, sex, or disillusion.  Or all of the above. I share your pleasure in being able to relax politically in De Robertis’s world.

I also wanted to address your assertion– I don’t think I’ve ever heard it elsewhere– that “Human suffering is or ought to be the great topic of literature, maybe of all art.”  Wow.  Do you really believe that?  I’d say that human suffering and human joy and human struggle (which is far from the same as suffering of course) and human cussedness and all the rest of it are the great topics of literature.  That is to say, literature (probably all art) ought to be one place where we get a sense of wholeness out of the disparate elements of life.

SE:

But whose wholeness?

On an abstract level, sure, the subject of art and especially literature should be all of human experience, hell all of the world, why leave it to humans (have you read, for example, Barbara Gowdy’s wonderful novel The White Bone, all of whose characters are elephants?), even all of the universe (couldn’t some talented writer make a gripping novel out of the Big Bang?). I know I ought to retreat from any pronouncement about what art ought to be that is more limited than all that. And yet. On reflection I’ll stick to saying that what moves me, little old me in all my subjectivity, and hey maybe it’s my Jewishness among other things, is suffering humanity. Along, certainly, with all that entails, love, loss, moments of hope and joy, but most of all struggle and solidarity.

It’s not that I want to read about the depredations of suffering–I’m not like the loathsome Mother Theresa who believed that poverty was holy, that poor people’s suffering sanctified them and to help them keep suffering is an uplifting noble endeavor, nor am I into suffering porn, I don’t find it arousing–but rather the shared experience of it in class society and how that leads to struggle. How the downtrodden find the resources to join hands and rise up.

As to joy, the great good things, the many-faceted complexities of life, this is a political question, isn’t it? A class question? Whose joy, what great good things, what complexity? We’ve already talked about all these novels of middle-class life that I increasingly find boring and meaningless whatever the plot or theme. So what’s the inverse? I guess I always come back to solidarity and struggle. When I think of fiction that lifts me up, that resonates, it is never about interpersonal relationships, family in particular, as the vast majority published in this country seems to be. Frankly at this point that’s all blah blah blah to me. The relations I want to read about are between co-workers, members of oppressed groups, etc. The complexities I want to read about have to do with groping for connections, grappling with challenges, feeling forward toward action. Coming together. Strategizing. Mobilizing. Acting.

MSW

First, I actually think there is fiction out there with good writing of the type you are yearning for: it’s in some of the books we’ve already mentioned in earlier discussions.  I’m thinking of the Easter Uprising in  At Swim, Two Boys but also an old Proletarian literature story, Meridel LeSueur’s  “I Was Marching.”  That story analyzes the experience of a self-identified middle-class woman joining a strike.  Not enough, for sure, but some of it is out there.  I think what you are really calling for, and let me join my voice in the call, is for you and me and others to write about these things and find publishers who will publish the writing.  Which made me think of collecting some  exemplary or at least decent passages of that kind of writing.  (I’m always looking for teacher materials).  I’d be interested in analyzing how those scenes work.

And, in fact, I know you have some scenes of big demonstrations in your writing and a wonderful passage about a pogrom, which is certainly about suffering and groups in motion.  I’ve written a passage about a character at an anti-war demonstration where she felt alienated, and then also at a smaller demonstration where she felt very much a part of the big things. I’m interested in how  fiction writers can handle this technically.  How do we order the sentences, hold at once the individual point of view and the whole crowd?  I guess I’ve moved from politics to writing, but that’s one of the things I want from Politerature (other than a reading list): a practical as well as theoretical discussion of how to make politerature.

Addendum: Here are links to examples of SE and MSW’s descriptions of political demonstrations in their fiction:  SE’s is here  and MSW’s here.

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Backchannel Contributor Offers for Our Consideration…

chinuaachebe   Politerature often receives notes about books from an extremely private reader who prefers to be called “Backchannel Contributor.”  Backchannel has deep concerns about personal information and privacy on the web and thus prefers not to comment on these posts directly.  Many of the books Backchannel offers for our consideration come from The Guardian, as do these notes by Nadine Gordimer on the late Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart:  “A mind able to penetrate the mystery of being human.” See  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/22/chinua-achebe-death-nadine-gordimer .   Achebe died in Boston earlier this month, and there many obituaries and overviews of him and his work available, including  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/22/novelist-chinua-achebe-dies and an excellent overview at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/22/chinua-achebeThis article gets into the politics of his writing.  At the side, there are links to even more articles on him. The above article

Here’s a quote I (MSW) like from Achebe: “Imaginative literature … does not enslave; it liberates the mind of man. Its truth is not like the canons of orthodoxy or the irrationality of prejudice and superstition. It begins as an adventure in self-discovery and ends in wisdom and humane conscience.”  This is from “The Truth of Fiction” in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York: Anchor/Random House, NY, 1988).

More of Backchannel’s suggestions include Eddie the King by Leo Zeilig, a portrait of a flawed young radical; The City of Devi by Manil Suri (“personal lust and political drama unite in this devilish carousel of a novel,” says Nikita Lalwani in a review ).  More suggestions include an interesting mix of family relations and politics in The Iraqi Christ by Hasan Blasim; and Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go .  There is also an article about Taiye Selasi on her shame at her family history and how she learned to be herself in Africa at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/22/taiye-selasi-afropolitan-memoir .

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Jane Lazarre’s INHERITANCE

The most recent book by Jane Lazarre, the author of many novels and books of memoir (including Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness; Some Place Quite Unknown; The Mother Knot), is a powerful novel  called  Inheritanceinheritance_cov It  is a meditation on race and the racial and ethnic history of the United States.  It touches on some of the same time period as in Fast’s Freedom Road (reviewed here by SE) but also has parts set before the American Civil War as well as throughout the twentieth century.  Its central, germinal story is what happened to a young white woman named Louisa and a black man named Samuel in the years leading up to the Civil War. Samuel and his mother are enslaved, which means his and Louisa’s love is not only forbidden but fatal if discovered. Louisa, white as she is, is also the sister of a slave and is soon pregnant with a slave. What happens when her pregnancy is discovered, and then the color of the baby, is harrowing and horrible. The rest of the novel circles around and flows out of these terrible events through many generations.

The mutilation-murder of Samuel is narrated carefully and respectfully without any of the pornography of violence that a lot of American writers seem to delight in when they are writing about slavery. Lazarre’s focus is always on transformation as her characters deepen their understanding of race and history.  The modern characters experience a complex exploration of their consciousness, especially the women struggling with whiteness and their relationships with people of color. All of the main point of view characters are highly thoughtful and deeply articulate as they explore the layers of their lives and relationships. Among these characters is the teenaged daughter of a white Jewish mother and Black father (and his mother is Italian-American).  There is a writer who is descended from Louisa and Samuel; there is an early twentieth century Jewish woman named Hannah who is the great-grandmother of the teenager above.  Hannah falls into a passionate though non-physical relationship with a descendent of Samuel, also named Samuel.

The genealogies are complex and the issues of whiteness and Blackness are dealt with in detail by the point-of-view characters themselves, all of whom share a writerly sensibility.  The origin story of the nineteenth century white girl with the enslaved child and murdered lover recounts  her lonely effort to understand and survive.  There are remarkable scenes like the one on Long Island Sound when Hannah, unhappy in her marriage and life, eats an oyster pulled directly from the Sound and offered to her in friendship by the third Samuel–a transgression against the formal and informal race laws of the day, but also against the rabbinical laws.  It is an ambitious and powerful book that teases out where we cannot reach across the abysses of race and history– and also where we can.

Note:  The novel is available from the small press Hamilton Stone Editions with which MSW has an association.

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FREEDOM ROAD by Howard Fast

SE

The author of this book most assuredly saw the novel as political, indeed as didactic. Oh horrors–didactic fiction, story told in the service of teaching something, didactic that worst of curse words for the bourgeois literary establishment. It is no curse word to me, in fact is something to be aspired to, and I daresay the great Howard Fast felt the same way when he was writing Freedom Road, first published in 1944.

The foreword to the edition of Freedom Road currently in print was written by W.E.B. Du Bois. If the greatest historian of Reconstruction and the counter-revolution that overturned it, the author of Black Reconstruction in America, The Souls of Black Folk and so many other vitally important works, the founder of the NAACP, and a great communist to boot–if W.E.B. Du Bois, himself a towering figure in African-American history, commends this book to us, and he does in his foreword, I can do no less than commend it to you.

The story tells of Gideon Jackson, a man of African descent who was enslaved in South Carolina, who left the plantation where he’d been held in servitude and fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, and who, from 1868 to 1877, plays a pivotal role in the grand effort to bring democracy and equality to the South. This effort includes wresting the right to vote, writing a new state constitution, working to build a system of free public education, claiming land ownership and building homes and community with Black and poor white working together in common cause for the good of all. Jackson eventually serves in the U.S. House of Representatives; his son travels to Scotland to train as a doctor; he and his whole family learn to read and write, build a house, hold personal possessions; all these gains hard won but possible through unity and with the backing of the Union army of occupation holding back the forces of the old slaveocracy. Until it all comes crashing down when the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, looked to at that time as the safeguard of freedom, makes a deal, withdraws the troops that had been the safeguard of liberty and looks the other way while racist reaction organizes a terrorist armed force, the Ku Klux Klan, to wage war against Jackson, his family and community, and communities like them throughout the South, bringing on a bloody counter-revolution to end Reconstruction, shut down equal education, voting rights, land rights, and replace them with sharecropping, bitter poverty, no rights–the era of Jim Crow that would last nearly another hundred years.

All this is true. All this happened. Fast made it his job to tell the story, a story that was little known in the mid-20th century and is still little known today, the story of the war of racist terror that came after the brief flourishing of freedom after the Civil War. Jackson’s character was based on one or several Black men who did indeed serve as leaders in the Reconstruction period, who accomplished much and would have accomplished much more had they not been sabotaged and left to the forces of murder and mayhem. Fast doesn’t sugarcoat it. The final scene is a bitter battle, Jackson and his small community holed up in the old plantation house with guns and rifles, waging a furious defensive battle against an all-out assault by the Klan marauders who outnumber the freedom fighters and ultimately kill them all.

There are many lessons to this story, and the story itself, so true, so little known, bears telling and re-telling, and so for this alone Freedom Road is a book that matters. But please don’t misunderstand: I recommend this book not merely for its political virtues. This is a fine work of literature. There are beautiful passages, stirring, touching; there is, as Du Bois noted, “profound psychological insight” and “lyrical charm”; there is above all the protagonist, Gideon Jackson, as finely wrought a character as I can remember ever encountering. It’s a book to make you feel deeply, think hard–and rededicate yourself to the struggle.

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