Posts Tagged ‘American Literature’

Nella Larsen: Passing

July 11, 2022

     I find this rather a difficult book to write about, given that it comes from a culture I don’t have many ways to approach. Passing is a novella written in the US about a century ago now, by a black woman, and it’s about the concept of ‘passing’ in the sense of a black person passing themselves off as a white person and living undiscovered in white society. There are evidently attractions and manifold perils in the practice; I imagine it was a phenomenon of its time…

At the start we see the world through the eyes of Irene, the narrator; fairly early on a relatively unsubtle incident reveals or confirms to us that she is a black woman; before, it was not possible to be certain. I think Larsen intends this. Culturally, it was very difficult for me to understand some of the nuances of black and white society in the US of the time, but it is clear that Irene’s ‘friend’ Clare successfully passes as white and has a successful marriage to a white businessman, and a child. One of the perils of ‘passing’ was children: genetics means that a child might be very obviously one race or the other; contraception was pretty basic in those days, too…

I was shocked by the brutality of white racism, in terms of language and attitudes, and uneasy at its being presented by a black writer, too. Larsen creates the dangerous edginess of conversations very powerfully and effectively in a number of potentially risky situations which Clare engineers, as we gradually discover that she has very mixed feelings about the ‘passing’ she has been successful in. She yearns for her past, although her growing torment at her situation is not that convincingly presented, I felt: we are just told by the narrator. And yet, in such a short work, a whole raft of moral dilemmas for various members of the community is revealed. Irene’s reluctant fascination with Clare and her life is convincingly done.

I found myself wondering whether the whole work might not have been more successful if developed as a proper full-length novel, although I also had to admit that then, I’d probably not have read it. Irene’s husband Brian’s wish to leave the US and remove to South America, obviously a source of much tension in their marriage, is never clearly explained, and we never find out who the mystery man is who brought Clare to Irene’s table in the hotel at the start of the story. The denouement – Clare setting her sights on Irene’s husband – was rather too obvious and also not really prepared for, and I found the predictable ending rather too open and unsatisfactory as well.

I’m glad I read it: it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable a number of times, and it has me thinking about the question of how much we ever can get to know or understand a culture that is very different from our own. That does not mean that we shouldn’t try, of course.

On choices and prejudices

February 8, 2022

My reaction to The English Patient has had me thinking. Regular and long-term readers of this blog will know that I have occasionally admitted to gaps in my reading, and to certain preferences – prejudices, even – in what I choose to read.

We all make choices about what we read or don’t read; as I get older, mine are increasingly based on limited time. But that won’t do as an excuse. There are fellow bloggers I follow with interest who only write about women’s fiction, or science fiction, for example; I’ve no way of knowing whether these are deliberate choices or their exclusive reading matter. I write about every book I read; very occasionally, if I’ve re-read a book quite quickly but have nothing to add, I won’t write about it a second time.

So where have all my prejudices and predilections come from?

Science fiction from my childhood, and from my student days, but I read very little of it now, and most of that is re-reading of old favourites. I used to have the run of the Science Fiction Foundation library as a postgrad and wrote reviews for Foundation magazine. My prejudice now, when I reflect, is due to my impression that fantasy has long overwhelmed the market, and I’m not interested in fantasy. Science fiction made me reflect on the world I live in; fantasy is merely escape and doesn’t cut it for me on those grounds.

Travel writing is a relatively recent pleasure, though it’s now fading, ironically, when I can’t do very much of my own. Specifically, I link it to the recommendation by a very helpful bookseller in a shop in Dinan who persuaded me to buy a couple of books by the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart about 20 years ago. I’ve never looked back. My prejudices here are about the kind of travel and the traveller: I like travel that borders on exploration, that involves effort and hardship, where the writer observes and reports rather than centring the narrative around themselves – so a lot of more recent stuff doesn’t get a look-in from me. I’m also picky about where: deserts and isolated places are what I most enjoy reading about; South America, the Far East and a lot of Oceania don’t interest me at all. What’s going on here?

English and American literature I studied for my degree; I necessarily met the ‘classics’, a lot of which I liked, many I didn’t. Dickens and Hardy, for example, bored me stiff and I cannot be bothered with them, a statement many will find rather shocking, no doubt. Most stuff written in the eighteenth century, apart from the very earliest novels, I have completely forgotten. And there was a fair amount of very dull American literature. I’m surprised that the student-era reactions have stuck, and I’ve never gone back to such writing. My main feeling was of twentieth century writing in English largely disappearing into self-obsession and triviality, almost as if there was nothing real left to write about; my regular readers will perhaps recall my saying that I found much more meaningful and relevant writing in other languages, all of which apart from French I have to read in translation.

My deep interest in, and exploration of, Eastern European literature is perhaps a positive prejudice and deliberate choice, given my family background: I seek to understand something of my origins, the history of my father’s country, and the troubled and strange choices made by, and forced upon, nations in that part of the world over the last century or so.

Looking back at what I’ve written, there are clearly some pretty lame excuses! There’s a brief, and not very long-lasting sense of regret about some of the lacunae in my reading, but in the end there’s so much out there to read that I will never get to the end of; I sometimes joke that I’m compiling reading lists for my next existence… And when students used to express amazement at how well-read I appeared to be, I disabused them, referring to my age compared with theirs, and telling them about some of the gaps, and prejudices I’ve confessed to earlier.

There was a time – centuries ago – when it was possible for someone to know or be familiar with everything in their field. I’m both humbled and astounded by people like Athanasius Kircher, who some have described as the last man to have known everything in his time, or Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, who wrote the first encyclopaedia, containing all that was known in his time, the seventh century. My translation of his Etymologies has about 400 pages. So, choices are now inevitable. I’ve made mine, or mine have made me. So be it. What about you?

American novels for a lockdown

April 16, 2020

Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always like this novel. It’s far more dark and serious than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is basically a kid’s adventure story (a very good one, at that!). The hero has to wrestle seriously with his conscience about the rights and wrongs of helping an escaped slave, and works out his moral dilemma for himself and lives with his decision and the consequences. It’s a novel about freedom, in the romantic sense of the early days of the US and people moving westwards to do their own thing. Sadly, it’s frowned upon a lot nowadays because Twain used a certain word, common parlance at the time, if derogatory, but which is now probably the most unusable and unacceptable word in our language. This is a silly reason to reject a novel: contextual understanding is all. I taught the book several times and we found a way to deal with that issue. If you have the time, there is a brilliant recording of the novel available on the Librivox website (look for the one by Mark Smith).

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird. I lost count of the number of times I taught this marvellous novel for GCSE. Thanks to the idiocy of a one-time ‘education’ secretary it’s now not allowed to be used, because it’s not by a British author; colleagues miss it deeply, for it allows so many issues crucial in the lives of teenagers and young people to be explored as you turn its pages. Yes, it romanticises issues and avoids others, but it plants the question of racism firmly on the agenda, along with relationships between parents and children, and growing up. It’s a deeply humane novel, in spite of its flaws.

Jack Kerouac: On The Road. One from my hippy days – gosh, how long ago! The open road, the yearning for freedom, time to do what you like, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Romantic tosh, perhaps, but it opens up the possibility to dream at that age. I don’t think I could read it now, I have to say, but that doesn’t take away the magical influence it exerted on me in my misspent youth, and I don’t regret it.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22. The war novel to underline the utter absurdity of warfare, the pointlessness, the profiteering, the incompetence of commanders, the fear. It’s a tour-de-force, with its craziness providing very dark humour – but real humour – and its seriousness in places is truly spine-chilling, for instance, as Snowden’s secret is finally uncovered. Although it wasn’t written during the Second World War, that’s the setting, and it’s surely the best novel in that setting. The greta American war novel, probably the great twentieth century American novel.

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces. This is just so funny. I’ve read it several times, and there are still places where it has me in hopeless fits of laughter. As it’s not long since I last read it, I’ll just point you here.

August favourites #10: American novel

August 10, 2018

51d54scC21L._AC_US218_Mark Twain was a brilliant writer. Tom Sawyer is a child’s fantasy with running away from home, outwitting grown-ups, a murder mystery, and finding a fortune, whereas the sequel of sorts, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn moves into the darker and more serious world where a child comes to realise that all is not perfect in the world, that grown-ups cannot always put everything to rights, or even be trusted to be acting in your best interests. Such a realisation comes to us all and is often scary; we realise we have to take some responsibility for our own destiny; we are faced by choices that are not simply black and white, and we have to live with them. I think Twain shows us this so well in this novel. I have no truck with those who think it’s racist because it uses certain words, and I think the moment when Huck humbly comes to acknowledge how he has been wrong in his behaviour to Jim is one of the most moving in all American literature.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

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