Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jackie Kay, 'Things Fall Apart'

Não tenho ambiçôes nem desejos 
Ser poeta não é uma ambição minha 
É a minha maneira de estar sozinho.
Fernando Pessoa ('O guardador de Rebanhos' in "Poemas Completos de Alberto Caeiro")

I don't have ambitions or desires
Being a poet isn't my ambition,
It's my way of being alone.
Fernando Pessoa ('The Keeper of Flock' in "Alberto Caeiro: The Complete Poems")

I never speak about poetry in my blog and I don't know why. I don't know if poetry works on the internet, where people come into a blog like this and read quickly a post in multitasking mode, hardly reaching the end of it. I'll try anyway.

I'll start with a poet some of you may not know. My intention is not to post Wordworth's "Daffodils"; for that you can go everywhere on the net. I want to post something that I find interesting, slightly different from the poems we are used to read in literature classes, and then write something about it.

The first poet I’d like to talk about is Jackie Kay. She was born in 1961 in Scotland, from a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother. She was adopted by a white couple and raised in Glasgow. She has written poetry ("The Adoption Papers", “Off Colour”, “Life Mask”), novels for both adults (“Trumpet”) and children (“Strawgirl”) and, more recently, a memoir (“Red Dust Road”). Some years ago she went to Nigeria to meet her biological father and had written a piece for the Guardian whose copyright is now expired. To know that story I guess you’ll have to read her memoir (I’m eager to, by the way, as I’ve read her novel “Trumpet” some years ago and loved it). Alternatively, you can read this poem:

Things Fall Apart

My birth father lifted his hands above his head
and put the white mask of God on his handsome face.

A born-again man now, gone were the old tribal ways,
the ancestral village - African chief's nonsense, he says.

I could see his eyes behind the hard alabaster.
A father, no more real, still less real - not Wole Soyinka.

Less flesh than dark earth; less blood than red dust.
Less bone than Kano camels; less like me than Chinua Achebe.

Christianity had scrubbed his black face with a hard brush.
'You are my past sin, let us deliberate on new birth.'

The sun slips and slides and finally drops
into the swimming pool, in Nico hotel, Abuja; lonely pinks.

I knock back my dry spritzer, take in the songs
of African birds. I think he had my hands, my father.

                                                                                (From "Life Mask", 2005)

I have chosen this poem, over several others by Jackie Kay, because it is highly resonant with names and tropes of postcolonial literatures: two great Nigerian writers are named, not to mention that the title immediately takes us back to the atmospheres of Achebe’s most important novel, “Things Fall Apart”. The discordance between expectations and real events is the main focus of this short poem. The old tribal ways swept away by the religion and the customs of the colonizers, as it happens in Achebe’s novel, are paired to her disappointment at a father she has long imagined and now that he is in front of her, in flesh and blood, looks like dark earth and red dust to her. Unable to reconcile her father with the figure of the Nigerian intellectuals she knows, she is finally left alone in the hotel and thinks of his father’s hands, so similar and dissimilar from hers, those same hands that were lifted above his head to take God's white mask and to put it on his handsome face (Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” is the obvious reference here).

I like this poem for its simplicity, its refusal of the idea that poems use difficult words and complex figures of speech. It blends the narrative intent and the lyric moment, lending words in a most crystalline way to an emotion that we have all felt: disappointment and disenchantment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

“The Gift” by Vladimir Nabokov

Year of first publication: 1937-38
Genre: novel
Country: Russia

At some point in “The Gift” a man called Valentin Linëv from Warsaw reviews the book written by the protagonist, a mock biography of revolutionary democrat and author Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky. The reviewer dismisses the work, considering that its author has, among other faults, a poor use of the Russian language. This fictitious reviewer, I learn from the afterword to the novel, failed to recognize all the allusions to great Russian authors in the book, thus missing its prominent aesthetic value. I am exactly like this wicked reviewer, because my grasp of Russian literature is sketchy, if not worse. “The Gift” has in fact been written for those readers who are familiar with the works of Pushkin, Tolstoj, Turgenev and many other important Russian authors. If you are not one of these lucky readers, then you are excluded from “The Gift”, because the book is entirely about literature and the plot has little importance.
Fëdor Kostantinovich Godunov-Cherdyncev, a Russian expatriate in 1920s Berlin, has just published a book of poetry in a magazine for Russian émigrés, but nobody seems to care or hail him as one of the new talents among the not-so-tiny Russian community in Germany. The verses, reported at length together with a reviewer’s commentary, are mainly about the author’s childhood in his native Russia. Fëdor Kostantinovich describes that poetry comes to him in sudden blazes and he struggles to catch all the words, an adjective sometimes escaping him. Like Nabokov, Godunov-Cherdyncev also experiences synesthesia, a contamination between the senses that allows him to perceive words or sounds as colours or textiles (he recommends the reader to try his ‘flannel cotton “m”’). What does Fëdor Kostantinovich do apart from musing over his own writing, anyway? He often visits other Russian émigrés, for example the Chernyshevskys, who oddly enough are not related to the aforementioned revolutionary hero. They had a son, Jasha, who died in a way highly reminiscent of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, although the afterword to the novel mentions Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” as the implied allusion. This is how the novel works: in a now-common postmodern way that scatters metaliterary references all over the novel. It is not hard to spot the influence of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (1913-1927), for instance, in the constant remembrance and nostalgia for the protagonist’s childhood. With regards to this, Robert Scholes, an influential literary critic, once said that ‘once we knew that fiction was about life and criticism was about fiction – and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about other fiction, is criticism in fact, or metafiction’.
As the novel progresses, the reader understand that the plot revolves around Godunov-Cherdyncev’s maturation as a writer. At first his intention is writing a book about his father, who was an adventurer and an lepidopterist, but then he abandons the project. He meets Zina, a character moulded on Nabokov’s real wife Vera, who is the only one who loved his poems and wants to have a signed copy. She suggests that he should write a biography of Chernishevsky, as an exercise. Here begins the book within the book: more than one hundred pages are devoted to this fake biography of a real man. This chapter of the novel was censored, in the first Russian edition, for the same reasons given for the dismissal of the biography in the novel as a ‘reckless, antisocial, mischievous improvisation’. These words tell us that Nabokov was constantly playing with the reception of the book, because he knew it was not a book for everyone. He constantly mocks and scorns those readers who cannot spot the literary allusions, which can be a little annoying.
In spite of this metafictional feast, the novel failed to arouse my interest above a certain (low) level. Full of juicy titbits (‘the street began as a post office and ended like a church, like an epistolary novel’, p.16 my translation from the Italian), the novel does have some charms, but they are diluted, watered down in a drawn-out book of 450-odd pages, with almost no plot and maybe ruined by a translation that was difficult to make, not to mention an inadequate reader with only a few notions of Russian literature. As he always does, Nabokov tells in a preface what “The Gift” is not: it is not an autobiographical novel, he says, because he did not have an explorer as a father and he never courted Zina Mertz. The problem is that Nabokov never says what his novels really are. It seems to me that, as his other two works I have read so far (read here and here), this is ultimately a novel about writing, the novel that we read being the same novel that the protagonist starts at the end of the book, as if we were in a Moebius strip, a continuum where the end is also the beginning of the novel. The gift of the title is of course the gift of the pen, of poetry and literature, which is all that mattered to Nabokov.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"A Writer's People. Ways of Looking and Feeling" by V.S. Naipaul

Year of first publication: 2007
Genre: non-fiction / memoir
Country: Trinidad and Tobago / UK

In this book Naipaul writes about those writers he came into contact with, helping him find his own way of looking and feeling, that is to say his style and his way of observing the world. As a writer who comes from a place without solid traditions and culture, he had to work out his own material. He examines various writers, as different as Derek Walcott and Cicero, Flaubert and Anthony Powell, not to mention his own father Seepersad Naipaul, trying to explain their ways of seeing the world and of translating their feelings and impressions into words. Halfway between memoir and non-fiction, “A Writer’s People” is not scared to express strong opinions (wink to Vladimir Nabokov) such as ‘ I didn’t do English in the sixth form; and when I saw the text books, the “Lyrical Ballads” and so on, I considered myself lucky’ (p.8) or again ‘what a relief it was to feel that I need never read another letter of sweet nothings from Henry James again’ (p.56). Even though these sentences could sound arrogant out of context, I think that Sir Vidia was honest and humble in this work. He never thinks he is (or was) any better than the writers he assesses, though one must be very careful because the distinction is sometimes subtle. Many things he says about writing are undeniably true: ‘There is a kind of writing that undermines its subject. Most good writing , I believe is like that’ (p.40) and he manages to say what he wants with terse, simple language.
In the first chapter, sardonically called ‘The Worm in the Bud’, Naipaul writes about his nemesis Derek Walcott. Naipaul mocks those who, like Walcott, celebrate the culture of the Caribbean, suggesting that things like the steel band or the calypso are not really worth being called ‘culture’. He claims that Walcott tried to fill up the cultural emptiness felt by the inhabitants of the West Indies by borrowing from other cultures (Greek mythology, for instance) and giving people distorted ways to fill this lack, such as racial hatred and rage against the white people who exploited the islands. Walcott’s mind, according to Naipaul, remained anchored to his small little island, refusing to see the greater picture. For his pessimism, Naipaul has been dubbed by Walcott (a Nobel Prize apiece they are!) V.S. Nightfall and a mocking poem has even been written on the topic. The problem is that by the end of this chapter (and this book) I still haven’t grasped what really is his particular way of seeing and feeling. Apart from feeling disconnected from most writers on the face of the earth, the author does not say it.
In the second chapter ‘The English Way of Looking’, the author writes at length about his friend and fellow-writer Anthony Powell, an influential English writer in the 1950s. He laments that Powell wrote about English society in great detail, but without undermining the subject from within. Probably true. The reason is, according to Naipaul, that every aspect of English society, and especially of English country life, has already been written. However, he also criticized English travel writers (Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham) for assuming that people knew about the socio-political entanglements of the countries they were writing about. He thinks that ‘it seemed, in strange way, that at the end, when the dust had settled, the people who wrote as though they were at the centre of things might be revealed as the provincials’ (p.55). He did not convince me. Naipaul seems to ignore the fact that society is always changing and so is history: a novel written about the English society in 2011 will not be the same as a novel written about that same society in, say, 2007. The recession has happened and the Arab world is in revolt, for instance. Relationships, reactions and lifestyles continually change and are affected by a multitude of factors, so there will always be new material to write on.
The last three chapters follow a circular pattern: the author starts writing about what he believes is an Indian way of seeing and then passes on to some Latin authors, only to shed light on his ideas about Indian contemporary culture, which he essentially condemns as materialistic and culturally dependent on the West. Naipaul details the life of Gandhi, whom he portrays essentially as a provincial man whose view of the world was rather dim, but who had some great intuitions. Strangely enough, the ‘half-view’ of classical authors resembles the Indian way of seeing and feeling, that the author calls ‘looking and not seeing’. Naipaul laments that Indians claim they know Gandhi, without acknowledging the various elements that created his philosophy (his experience in London studying law, his imprisonment in South Africa, the observation of his mother’s faults and essentially the conflict between his admiration and his disgust for the colonizers). Indians, according to Naipaul, are confused. ‘India has no autonomous intellectual life’ he writes at the end of the book, blaming expatriate writers for writing overtly autobiographical novels moulded on creative writing courses that ultimately look all the same.
I don’t know what to make of this book. Did I like it? Did I not like it? I am uncomfortable with some of the conclusions, but I was spellbound while I was reading it. Written in spare prose, with anecdotes that are affectionate and cruel at the same time, Naipaul knows how to use his words and understands what it means to be a writer, the challenges and frustrations of the job. I had never imagined, for instance, that a writer like V.S. Naipaul never got over his shyness in seeing his name in print!

About the author:
V.S. Naipaul was born in 1932 in Trinidad. He belongs to a family which descends from the indented workers brought from India to replace the African slaves who refused to work on the sugar plantations. His father Seepersad was a pioneer writer in the small intellectual community in Trinidad. Naipaul left his island for England with a scholarship and studied in Oxford. After his studies he began to write and has pursued no other profession. Among his first novels are “The Mystic Masseur” (1957), “A House for Mr Biswas” (1961) and “In A Free State” (1971). The latter has won the Booker Prize. He has also travelled the world and written about it: his acclaimed Indian Trilogy (“An Area of Darkness”, “India: A Wounded Civilization” and “India: A Million Mutinees Now”) and “Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey” are some examples of his travel writing. Naipaul has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001 ‘for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories’. His work has raised a lot of controversy, mainly for political reasons and for his unsympathetic portrayal of the developing world, especially in his travel writing.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Felicia's Journey" by William Trevor

Year of first publication: 1994
Genre: novel, crime fiction, thrille
Country: Ireland

Where does crime fiction start? Where does it end? When is one allowed to sympathize with the evil characters of a book? These are some questions that "Felicia's Journey" raises.
William Trevor is one of the most important living Irish writers, a master of short stories, always compared to Joyce. This is one of his novels, which slowly explores the story of Felicia and Mr Hilditch, who are opposites. She is a young innocent Irish girl who is looking for her boyfriend in England and he is a middle-age English man, lonely and apparently benevolent. Ok, now I have spoiled everything with only one adjective and you know already how the story will end. Or not?

La recensione di questo libro è disponibile a questo link.