Author Archives: MSW

New E-Novel from Meredith Sue Willis

Love Palace
A Novel

Deborah Clearman, author of Todos Santos, says of Meredith Sue Willis’s new novel that Willis “turns her considerable talents to explore a new part of the world: the downtrodden New Jersey waterfront undergoing a radical Gold Coast transformation. In Love Palace Willis has created a memorable cast of characters and a pitch perfect sense of place. The tale of a quixotic battle against redevelopment is narrated by an unlikely heroine. Martha Miller is neurotic, over-educated, under-achieving, over-libidoed, and in a tailspin over being left by Rotter number 3, her long-term boyfriend. (Rotter number 1 was her father; Rotter number 2, her ex-husband).

“Martha suffers from agoraphobia and low self-esteem, but one thing she’s good at is attracting men and enjoying sex. A man/boy half her age (twenty-one), devastatingly good-looking, and sexually conflicted picks her up at a bar and takes her home to Love Palace. From then on the novel is a wild rollicking ride….It is Martha’s ability to sympathize with even the creepiest characters which gives nuance to what is essentially a morality tale: pitting the disenfranchised poor against the steamroller of capitalism. Who is stealing money from Love Palace’s bank account? Will Martha and Robbie’s unlikely marriage work? Can the little guy ever win? We are propelled through action-packed scenes to an unexpected and satisfying conclusion.”

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Back Channel on Didactic Novels

Back Channel is an anonymous reader who often suggests books and themes related to Politerature:

“I was just reading this Wikipedia entry about a 2002 book, When the Emperor Was Divine, which tells the story of a Japanese family’s internment during WWII. Thought you may be interested in this line, since it illustrates a lot of what Politerature explores: Writing for The New York Times, literary critic Michiko Kakutani states ‘though the book is flawed by a bluntly didactic conclusion, the earlier pages testify to the author’s lyric gifts and narrative poise.’

“Haven’t read the book, but am guessing its conclusion spells out something political in no uncertain terms. Personally, I love it when an author is blunt. Over the years, I’ve had discussions about books in and out of classes where they were assigned. People interpret things differently, and not everyone gets the political points an author is trying to convey. So I feel being ‘bluntly didactic’ is necessary just so everyone is on the same page and fully gets what the author is saying. I don’t understand this requirement that literature always be subtle, especially when it comes to politics. Of course, I also appreciate a tale spun with lyricism, ‘narrative poise,’ and all that. But I love a good firm punch to the intellect by an author in order to make sure readers are getting it.

“This is funny: I looked up ‘didactic’ in my American Heritage Dictionary and this was given as an example of the first definition: ‘a didactic novel that set out to expose social injustice.'”

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Good News about Politerature’s Shelley Ettinger!

Shelley’s story, “The Ellen Burstyn Equation,” in the new issue of Newtown Literary. The Newtown folks are promoting writers from the New York City borough of Queens, where Shelley lives, and her work is in
issue #3, available at http://newtownliterary.org/issues/.

Also, she will be reading at the upcoming Stories & Queer, a national reading series highlighting LGBTQ poets and writers (see http://storiesandqueer.tumblr.com/) on January 6, 2014 at 7:00 PM at 83A Hester Street.

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Ann Pancake on Activist Fiction

annpancake

Ann Pancake, the author of STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN (Counterpoint 2007),  has a wonderful essay in the Fall 2013 issue of the Georgia Review.  You can read the full essay here.

She says about what we at this blog call Politerature:

“I well know there are excellent reasons to be cautious when approaching explicitly political material as a literary artist, and especially as a writer of literary fiction. Nonfiction can directly reflect on ideas, present information, and even advocate for a “side” without violating the promise the genre makes to the reader. Fiction is another story. Treating politics in fiction is hard to carry off without violating the novel or short story’s “vivid continuous dream”—John Gardner’s term for the spell the best novels cast, a spell too often broken by overtly political works. Of course, fiction can take some liberties—we do have novels of ideas, though they are less popular today than in the past, and there are postmodern experiments that deliberately flout that “vivid continuous dream.” But generally speaking, in realist fiction a mere whiff of the didactic or polemic, any glimpse of the work’s creator stepping in and directing the reader about how to think or feel, can shatter the world the writer has so painstakingly constructed and unravel the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

“This is true also of much poetry and certain kinds of creative nonfiction. Integrating into any literary genre the facts, information, and context a political subject often requires is very difficult without undermining the art, and making the job even harder is the reality that contemporary American audiences are less familiar with encountering politics in literature than are audiences in other countries. I can also tell you from personal experience that writing political fiction doesn’t make you very popular with commercial publishers. It’s no mystery why American fiction writers today are actively discouraged from pulling advocacy politics into their work—except for identity politics, which are a natural match for character-driven fiction and many times aren’t recognized as politics. Certainly political literature presents myriad challenges to the writer, and I know there are places in my own novel where I stumbled into exactly the traps I’m pointing out here. But is the fact that such work is challenging a reason to avoid it altogether?”

She ends her essay this way:

“I believe literature’s most pressing political task of all in these times is envisioning alternative future realities. My biggest disappointment with my own political novel is not the missteps where I strayed into polemic or awkwardly integrated information. My biggest disappointment is that my novel does not provide vision beyond the contemporary situation in central Appalachia. I have learned that it’s much easier to represent a political situation in literature than it is to propose alternatives—to dream forward—without lapsing into Pollyannaism or cynicism. But I’ve come to believe that the greatest challenge for many twenty-first-century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward which is not based in idealism or fantasy, which does not offer dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads. I now feel charged to make stories that invent more than represent, that dream more than reflect. This is not to say that I have more than glimmers of what such fiction will be, but I carry a burning urgency that it must be done.”

Go to   http://garev.uga.edu/fall13/pancake.html  and read the whole essay!

     MSW & SE

 

 

 

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On Hector Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries

barbarian nurseries

SE
Last week  I read a great book. The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. I can’t recommend it enthusiastically enough.
This fine novel has everything that turns me on as a reader. Beautiful, complex writing. Multidimensional, surprising characters who are anything but pat. A deeply involving story—I’m telling you, I was on the edge of my seat through the middle 200 pages, and not in a shallow cinematic-car-chase sense, oh no, what is at stake in Tobar’s plot is ever so much more meaningful and important than anything any thriller writer ever conceived. Class consciousness, to the max. And most of all, social engagement, for this is a profoundly relevant and timely novel. Relevant, that is, to some of the most compelling issues facing our class here and now.

Primary among these issues is immigration, specifically the struggles of undocumented workers and the racist war being waged against them. It’s not for me to say, but I suspect this just might be the novel of Los Angeles and southern California. The novel that tells the truth.

Necessarily the reader is drawn immediately and throughout to take sides. From start to finish we are on the side of the main character, a Mexican immigrant, undocumented, who works in the household of a well-off suburban couple. Tobar is a large hearted writer, allowing every character her/his humanity even when objectively they don’t deserve our sympathy, sketching no one as a stick figure or stereotype.

Still, his great achievement is his protagonist, Araceli Ramirez. An artist who finds herself stuck cooking and cleaning in someone else’s house, ultimately stuck taking care of someone else’s kids when she never wanted to, smart, prickly, resentful and full of contradictions—that is, fully human, as many-layered as every human being is—Tobar’s Araceli is never less than fascinating. I can’t remember the last time I cared so much about a fictional character, was so invested in where her story would lead.

There’s too much juice here to suck it dry by giving more specific details about the story itself. Readers should come at it clean. Let it sweep you along. I will note that I was a bit puzzled at the end, at Tobar’s treatment of a certain southwestern state as the story winds down. It almost left me wondering whether there’s a sequel in the works. That would be splendid.

(Shelley Ettinger’s review was first published on February 6, 2012, on her blog, READ RED (http://readwritered.blogspot.com/search?q=Barbarian+Nurseries)

 

MSW
I know I liked Héctor Tobar ‘s The Barbarian Nurseries a lot because after finishing it, I found myself missing its world and feeling  grumpy that I wasn’t going to be going back to it.  It’s one of those big, broad, many-charactered and  many-voiced  novels such as Tom Wolfe writes– only politically progressive, like an upbeat Bonfire of the Vanities.  It would count as politerature if only for how much of the story explores the lives and varied voices and experiences of people who are not usually given such attention.

The most important character is Araceli Ramirez, who, after a poor childhood, has spent a year at the ostensibly free national school of the arts in  “el de efe” (the Federal District, Mexico City).  However, while classes might be free, Araceli finds books and supplies prohibitively expensive, and she also has a brutal commute and very little support from her family.  She drops out of higher education and comes undocumented to Los Angeles to work, ending up as a house keeper for Maureen and Scott Torres.

One of the best things about this book is the precision of each character’s background.  Araceli is not a single mother deserted by a man, but an artist who doesn’t like kids very much.  Scott Torres, her employer, made a lot of money in the nineties computer boom, and has a Mexican father but almost no interest in his heritage.  There are a number of characters with Spanish last names who don’t speak much Spanish.  Everyone with a Spanish last name is not Mexican– author Tobar himself is the son of Guatemalan immigrants. Precision like this is the rock-solid best and maybe only way to dispense with stereotypes and clichés– and it is also the best road to good fiction.

The Torres family lives in a gated community just outside Los Angeles.  Maureen Torres has taken on the sacred duty of being the Angel of the House and creating a place of perfect beauty and grace, rich with learning opportunities for her children. There have been financial setbacks, however, and Scott and Maureen have fired two of the employees who made their oasis of domesticity possible. Araceli now has to do everything, and financial conflict arises quickly between Maureen and Scott. A third of the way into the novel, they have a fight that gets physical and sends them off separately on mini-vacations from their responsibilities, each thinking the other is still home, but in any case assuming that Araceli will take care of everything. Unfortunately, no one gives Araceli the agenda, and after the Torres adults have been gone a couple of days, the real action starts.
As SE points out above, Tobar tries to give a fair shake to Scott and Maureen, with more or less success, and even to one appalling home-grown anti-immigrant rabble rouser.  Actually, the rabble-rouser comes out better than the Torres couple: she is financially stretched and bitter over her life.  The Torreses, however, have not only walked out on their kids, but when they do come home, they let a politically ambitious junior DA manipulate them.  Araceli is arrested and labeled a kidnapper.

It is a book with a lot of event, many things to be outraged by– but also amused by.  It does not, however, to its credit, pander to Hollywood’s conventions of beats and violence: there’s no bloody shoot out, and while Araceli gains a little affection for the boys, she is still happy when she can responsibly turn them over to someone else. Things in this novel also build slowly as in real life.  Mistakes in an unjust system lead to greater injustices.  At the same time, people organize against the injustices, not always efficiently, but totally believably.

Probably the real star of the novel is the city of Los Angeles and environs. Tobar, a journalist, clearly knows and loves his city.  He takes Araceli and her two young charges on foot and public transportation through parts of the city that tourists don’t see. I find the scenes of place and the old neighborhoods (and the boys’ delight in the newness of the world which they persist in seeing as scenes from a fantasy novel) especially moving.  I’ve been in Los Angeles a couple of times in the last few years, and now I want to see the rest of it.

I have complaints: I like the slow build-up in the first third, but it uses aggregation if description  rather than selection.  Thus you get all the plants in both the Torres family’s dying rainforest garden and then in the expensive new desert garden that replaces it.  You learn in detail all the toys the boys have in their room, and the objects in the house.  Describing such a possession-dominated dwelling in detail is appropriate, of course, but I got tired of it, which I never did in the parts describing cityscapes.

A bigger problem for me (although not for SE above) was that I was not totally convinced by Araceli. I certainly was on her side and cared about her, but she wasn’t quite all there for me.  She didn’t seem to have organs: a belly, a vagina.  She is carefully presented as being interested in men, and she gets a promising (if too-good-to-be-true) boyfriend, but I wasn’t satisfied.  Maureen, the missus, did feel like a complete human being– albeit a cringe-causing human being, but her world view of domesticity as religion felt just right.  Araceli didn’t feel wrong, just unfinished.However, I would maintain that this novel is not primarily about the inner lives and motivations of individuals.  It is a novel deeply felt and passionate, but written from the outside,  and what I want to say is that this is a very good thing.

Tobar has (like Theodore Dreiser) the great strength of a journalist, which is the big picture.  He is compassionate for sure, but his understanding comes from looking outside in. This makes THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES a novel about the world instead of about one or two people and their private sufferings. It isn’t about the squashed artistic genius of Araceli Ramirez.  It’s about Araceli in the world, working, seeking help in the city, building a respectful but limited relationship with her two little princes of the gated communities.  Tobar gives us the cynical political structure as represented by the junior DA, but he also gives us a proud Mexican-American town councilman and a disgruntled Mexican consul who acts as a sort of deus ex machina in Araceli’s time of need.

Tobar is able to make a novel that actually captures the complexity of the world he’s chosen to write about.  Best of all, for all the rotten behavior by individuals and classes in power, he sees wonderful energy surging from below, from groups and individuals.  There is, then, a lot of hope in this novel.

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Sister Carrie

sister carrieMovie Version with Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones
 

I read Theodore Dreiser’s  1900 novel Sister Carrie so long ago that I only had the vaguest memories of it, except for one powerful chapter, a set piece in which a major character, in dire need of a job, becomes a scab trolley car operator. This probably speaks to Dreiser’s strengths as a writer, especially his ability to create scenes and report conditions. The internal life of Dreiser’s characters takes second if not third place to story, events, scenes, his Chicago and New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. I should note that his prose is famously crude– journalistically sharp and clear at its best.  But, oh, he can do a scene and a set piece: indeed, his set pieces– the street preacher collecting money to feed the destitute or  that great strike chapter– have a towering importance in creating the world and social tensions of the novel. For many of these reasons, too, it is an ideal novel to read on an e-reader:  it moves forward rapidly, and it’s in the public domain, and thus free!

The dramatization of social conflicts is central to the novel, and Dreiser himself was extremely aware of the politics of his time. In the 1910’s he wrote for  the socialist publication The Masses, and he was an acquaintance or supporter of many people on the left like Max Eastman (before he became a rabid anti-communist) and Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger.  His work assumes as its background a world of workers, sometimes exploited  (Carrie in the shoe factory) and sometimes out of work (Hurstwood’s long slide into penury).  His main characters are members of the lower and lower middle classes striving upward and in imminent danger of failure.  He describes the whole gamut of society, too:  informal Sunday fashion parades on the great avenues of New York and grotesquely overabundant dinners of oysters and champagne as well as miserable mission beds for the homeless.

The novel is also an important critique of the American fetish for individuality and financial success.  It follows three individuals who believe in wealth and luck and individual responsibility– which is not, in Dreiser’s world, a particularly admirable thing. The title character, Carrie, is the one who at the end of the novel is most successful in her career.  She is at the top of her climb as the novel ends, but not especially content– and we readers have to know that her success is built on the charm of youth and freshness, which is the most precarious success of all. She is also the character whose trajectory depends most on luck. She depends for her climb on men who seduce her and support her. There is some cultural sexism here, but also Dreiser’s belief that it isn’t really your striving that is most important, it’s being in the right place at the right time: having good fortune.

Carrie is a kept woman, but there is no indication that sex motivates her. She responds most sensually to fabrics and furniture and little leather boots and good food.  She is largely faithful to the two men who either save her or exploit her, depending on how you look at it. Part of the story is about who is using whom, and what it means to be a sexually active woman outside of marriage. Some of Dreiser’s attitudes come from his own life and his own sisters’ lives.  Sister Carrie shocked a lot of Americans by ending with Carrie unpunished for her unmarried liaisons. She’s not a terribly appealing person to me, but she’s intelligent enough to observe and grab her opportunities when they appear. I did wonder how she managed never to get pregnant, but I assume an explanation of that would have been too much for Dreiser’s sometimes reluctant publishers.

The most interesting character in the novel is Hurstwood, Carrie’s second lover, but I want to mention first Drouet, her first lover.  He’s a Midwestern drummer, a traveling salesman, an unsentimental version of Harold Hill in The Music Man.  Drouet is the one who first seduces Carrie– without a lot of effort and with very little planning.  He’s good humored and takes  reasonably good care of her, by his lights. He also, condescendingly, gives her her first opportunity on stage.  Later, when he tries to come back into her life after her theatrical career takes off, he is comically amazed that she could reject him.

Droet is fatuous– but there is a telling small scene in which he comes across better than the other two.  Drouet and Carrie and Hurstwood are together on the street, and a beggar approaches them. The affluent Hurstwood, who will himself soon be a beggar, totally ignores the man. To Carrie, who has herself been poor and hungry, the beggar is part of the scenery; he barely registers in her consciousness. But Drouet feels sorry for him and casually gives him a coin.  Drouet , then, is presented as the kind of person whose heart is good, but whose role in society depends a great deal on the kind of society he lives in.

The best character by far is Hurstwood, the manager of a large, famous Chicago bar (or “resort” as Dreiser calls it).  Hurstwood has all the accoutrements of success– lovely home, wife and adult children, excellent clothes, property– but he is, in spite of appearances, only the well-paid servant of a higher class.  He is acquainted with celebrities and rich men, smokes excellent cigars and sips top shelf liquor with them.  He has an easy mastery of moving in a particular world and is well fitted to his role as manager. He is not, however, a capitalist.  He is a paid employee, and like many Americans then and now, his position is far more precarious than he realizes.  He doesn’t have enough wealth to move up much more. He is in the position where a couple of mistakes can send him on a downward path, and much of the story traces his mistakes and follows him down this path.

Hurstwood makes two great errors– or three, if you count how seriously he falls in love with Carrie.  First, he underestimates his wife and puts his wealth in real estate in her name. His second great error is that in his desperation to run away with Carrie, he steals a large roll of money from his employers’ safe, left open by chance. Hurstwood never would have lowered himself to plan a robbery, but when the money is lying available to him, his belief in his own entitlement blinds him. He thinks he should continue to get the good things in life.  His wife now has all his worldly possessions, so it seems obvious to him that money should come to him so he can live with the  woman he loves in the style to which he is accustomed. The theft is neither clever nor successful.  He ultimately returns most of the money and does no jail time, but his special value to his employers  has evaporated.  Everything that made him what he was is gone from him.

The theft, and the following pages of something between an elopement and an abduction of Carrie, is the climax, the turn in the story.  The rest of the novel– and probably the best part– is how it all plays out.  We see Carrie continue on her slow upward trajectory, and we see Hurstwood decline.  They go to start a new life in New York, but  Hurstwood essentially feels above the possibilities available to him.  He doesn’t realize that his value to employers has been destroyed.  He has enough money to buy into a bar that he feels is below his social position, and he is unable to deal with his unscrupulous partner or to create the kind of atmosphere in the business that made his previous bar such a success.

After two or three years, Carrie finally sees that Hurstwood is ruined and out of work and not getting a new job.  He goes out every day, but stops job hunting.  She finally begins to take action.  She puts in a lot of energy getting a job as a chorus girl, and there are excellent scenes of her knocking on doors for employment.  She makes a little money, supports herself and Hurstwood, but is increasingly disgusted by his depression and physical decline.  She makes a small splash at work, gets a substantial raise, and her upward trajectory picks up momentum.

Just as, of course, Hurstwood’s downward momentum increases.  He has, in the end, been poisoned by the ideology that led him to believe he was one of the wealthy that he was, in fact,  only serving.  This is one of the special cruelties of a so-called classless society:  the butler of a British aristocrat may have identified with his master, but he never thought he was of the master class. Hurstwood would essentially rather die than take a job below what he believes to be his position.  He undermines himself and plunges toward his doom.

At a certain point, Carrie says directly that he needs to be a man and get a job. This leads to the  wonderful Chapter 41, The Strike.  Hurstwood the Manager actually works for two days.  And the work he does– this man spoiled by his closeness to American wealth– is to become a scab during a strike of the Brooklyn trolley system.  Hurstwood is so caught up in his own misery that it never registers that he is doing anything but making a personal statement to Carrie by earning a few bucks.  But Dreiser takes pains in this chapter to open the floor to many voices: the Irish American cops who ride the cars to protect the scabs; the other scabs who say they are on the side of the strikers, but have hungry kids at home.

And then, of course, there are the voices of the strikers themselves as they lay rocks on the track to stop the trolley cars and try to convince Hurstwood to join them.  Children and old mothers join in the chorus.  It’s a brilliant passage of realism, and even if you don’t care for Dreiser, I’d recommend reading the strike chapter, which stands alone very well, although it is, of course, much more powerful in the context of the whole book.  [Click here for Strike Chapter].

The end of the novel is Carrie’s somewhat dissatisfied apex of success, and Hurstwood’s sad tour of the soup kitchens and missions of early twentieth century Manhattan.   His end is sad, but predictable, and to some extent, a relief to the reader as to Hurstwood himself.  Dreiser’s skill with a story shows up at the end as he intercuts Hurstwood’s final hours with Carrie’s celebrity and Hurstwood’s wife and daughter and son-in-law on a train rushing to New York to catch an ocean liner to Europe.  It’s all there: the rich, the poor, the ones whose success trembles on the brink, the dissatisfaction, the misery, the feckless, the despondent and the hopeless.

A large part of what makes Sister Carrie a great political novel is, in my opinion, the breadth and depth of the world it creates and, of course, the fault lines of that world:  the down-and-out; the strikers; the scenes in a shoe factory; the platters of oysters for the wealthy; the way the theater managers look at the girls who want to work in the chorus.  It is a dramatized take-down of an ideology that would lead us to scramble up the ladder of success as lonely individuals.

Sister Carrie is available in your local library for free; it is also free as an e-book from many sources, including the highly recommended Gutenberg Project.

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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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