A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.
On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a "paralyzing horror...when confronted with the traces of destruction."
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: "All that lives must die," she reminds him, "Passing through nature to eternity." Hamlet: "Ay, madam, it is common." Gertrude: "If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?"
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been "clouded by an unrelieved despair." As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:
As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening...when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.
Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters--even their documentary aspects--in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: "Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons." Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.
It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past--available only in fragments--is a perfect instance of sublimeness.
So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) "an infinite enormity of pain," as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by "our providentially myopic senses." Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)
Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism--its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer "to outweigh the chain of death," also felt a keen nostalgia for "the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity." Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an "organic" nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.
It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self--its moods and truths--in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?
All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke "at a draught like a cup of hemlock." But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect--no doubt unintentional--of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. "Our history," he wrote, "is but a long account of calamities." The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.
Kanan Makiya, the Arab world's most ardent and vocal supporter of America's projected intervention in Iraq, the hammer of liberal Arab intelligentsia, the arch anti-Orientalist, has just published a new book. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem is a beautifully crafted fictionalized account of
the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, related by Ishaq, the architect of the Dome under which the Rock of Foundation now lies. To call it a novel, however, is misleading. It's more a performance, and a highly political one too. The Rock is a chapter in Makiya's complex political program.
Kanan Makiya is America's favorite dissident. For a start, he's the Iraqi intellectual whose descriptions of life under Saddam Hussein provided the first Bush Administration with peripheral justification for the first war in the Persian Gulf. But he's gone further and taken up America's battered cause against the legions of fashionable intellectuals--Arab and other--who blame the United States for the ills of the Middle East, the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine and the general misfortunes of the Third World.
Makiya's Republic of Fear, first published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil in 1989, described a dystopia the likes of which were hardly imagined by such fearmongers as Huxley and Orwell. The hells of Brave New World and 1984 were founded on the wholesale indoctrination of a people, and the insidious bureaucratized destruction of individuality. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as described by Makiya, made claims to no such subtlety or totalitarian sophistication. There, the system's survival rested quite simply on its subjects' physical pain, and fear of it. Violence, first used as a carefully prescribed political medicine, became the instrument of state control.
Iraq in the 1960s and '70s saw the frenetic invention of domestic pariahs--Kurds and Shiite radicals, but also those political undesirables who threatened to undermine the all-conquering Baathist revolution. (The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s in Damascus along populist, socialist and nationalist principles, based in large part on the belief that Arabs had a special mission to end Western colonization. It swept to power in Iraq in 1968.) Their violent destruction legitimized a movement that, much like Slobodan Milosevic's ultranationalism, could only unify negatively--against an other. The society Baathist politics created, founded on violence, bred a populace "to whom strength of character is invariably associated with the ability to both sustain and inflict pain," wrote Makiya. Violence directed outward quickly proved itself to be the most effective sedative for a restless population. It took little time to turn it inward to the same effect: It bred fear and made power. In Makiya's descriptions of the punishments of first-time thieves (brandings on the forehead, amputation of limbs), the horrific tortures and endless disappearances of suspected dissenters, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, even the executions of military deserters, lies an anatomy of political evil.
Edward Said and other luminaries of the exiled Arab intellectual community virtually accused Makiya of being an American agent, of showing hatred toward his fellow Iraqis and of providing ammunition for Islamiphobes and Arab-haters across the West. The faintest justification for such a condemnation does exist. In Republic of Fear, Makiya avoids detailing all the reasons for the Iraqi hatred and massacre of the Assyrians in the 1930s, explaining it away as a political machination intended to unify a divided people by inventing a common enemy. He fails to mention that the Assyrians had played an important role in the British persecution of this divided Iraqi people in the previous decade, creating huge resentment at what was perceived as treachery. But his own betrayal of the Arab cause as represented by his critics goes only so far--omission in the footnotes.
Principally, Makiya causes concern to his fellow Arab exiles because he has turned their most powerful conceptual tool on its head, and against them. The notion that the West has unconsciously condescended to the Muslim world since first encountering it in the early modern period, and willfully exploited it ever since, has formed the basis of every indictment of US (and British) policy toward the Middle East: It is superior, self-interested imperialism. Ten days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Said wrote in the London Independent: "Is it too much to connect the stark political and military polarisation [building up in the Gulf] with the cultural abyss that exists between the Arabs and the West?" Makiya's response to American intervention in the area was wholehearted support. He claimed that the Arab world was failing itself; he let himself imagine a scenario that turned Said into the condescending Orientalist: Makiya dared imagine that the Arabs themselves might have fought Iraq, in defense of Muslim values and an Arab people, in this case the Kuwaitis. Arab intellectuals, he claimed, were conniving in the cataclysm befalling the Arab world by blaming the West rather than attacking the virus within.
Of course, both Said and Makiya provide vital weapons against the troubles of the Middle East, and Said is just as Saddamophobic as Makiya. Said's tireless attacks on Western neo-imperialism in the region are hugely important correctives to what is undoubtedly a tendency in the powerful West, eager for low oil prices. And Makiya's emphasis on Arab responsibility represents perhaps the bravest and most immediate proposal for change in the Middle East. Said and Makiya may talk at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the solutions they envisage to the problems of their areas of interest both focus on the crucial role of US involvement: Said argues that Palestinians have everything to gain from curtailed US intervention in support of Israel, while Makiya contends that Iraqis can only gain from full-fledged US involvement.
Although Makiya is best known for his politics, specifically vis-à-vis Iraq, in his political program there is another striking difference from most Arab intellectuals known in the West: his engagement with Islam. Islam is, of course, a core coefficient of the Arab worldview and subsequently of its politics. In what many perceive as the Arab world's struggle with and into modernity, it is also the hardest element to include, in large part because most Arab efforts to upgrade their political and societal structures have imitated a specifically Protestant West, where, in addition, church and state are divided. But very few secular Arab thinkers venture to write about Islam or consider it as a component of their political thinking. Doing so involves pitching headlong into the vipers' nest that is doctrinal competition in Islamic theology today--it is much easier to avoid it.
Makiya's first response to September 11 was to analyze the Islam that justified it. In his first major piece of journalism after the attacks, he wrote in the Observer of bin Laden's theology: "This is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity." He picked up this theme again in a detailed piece for the New York Review of Books in January, where he provided an intricate exegesis of the form of Islam propounded by the terrorists, as laid out in a document found by the FBI after the event. His concluding paragraph for that piece read:
The uses and distortions of Muslim sources in the hijackers' document deserve careful consideration. If arbitrary constructions of seventh-century texts and events have inflamed the imagination of such men, we should ask whether the ideas in the document will become part of the tradition that they misrepresent.... To contend with such an ideology [that of the hijackers] effectively it is not enough to go back to the original core of the tradition.... Bold and imaginative thinking must come from within the Muslim tradition in order to present social and political ideas that Muslims will find workable and persuasive. The tragic events of the past months have shown all the more clearly how urgently such ideas are needed.
The Rock was written before the horrors of September 11, but it must be read with all the above in mind. Makiya's first crusade was directed against the horrors of Baathism in Iraq--a secular, nationalist totalitarianism with universalist pan-Arab overtones. That crusade has now been extended to include what at first glance appears to be Baathism's nemesis but that lays an identical claim to absolute truth, justice and good: political Islamism.
In Republic of Fear, Makiya made the point that Baathism had failed to yoke the social to the political: It had failed to include the basic yearnings and ideals of its populace within its political program. Religion, such a vital component of Iraq's social fabric, had only been excluded. Khomeini's Iran, on the other hand, turned religion into politics at the immense cost of its political openness.
There is a middle ground. The Arab world has yet to produce a political system that is capable of incorporating its ethical and moral heritage (Islamic) within a social context that allows for freedom, individuality and those other values typical of "modern" (Western) society but so highly prized by a majority of the Arab world. To do so, the notions of both modernity and Islam must be addressed. Makiya looked at the practical politics of the Middle East and its foremost "modern" thinkers in Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. In The Rock, he tackles Islam.
This, Makiya's first novel, tells the story of Ka'b al-Ahbar, a Jewish Yemeni convert to Islam, who accompanies Umar ibn al-Khattab, second of the Rashidun (or Rightly Guided) Caliphs of Islam, in his conquest of Jerusalem. Tired of the desolation of life in Yemen, Ka'b sets off to make his fortune in the booming renaissance of northern Arabia, where a Prophet has blessed the people of Mecca and Medina. By his knowledge of the stories of Genesis and the cosmology of Abraham, he is quickly included into the elite Muslim fold, in which he converts, before setting off for the Holy City with the Arabian army. There, after battling with Sophronius the Christian Patriarch, he and Umar discover the Rock under a mountain of refuse on the Temple Mount. Here, on the site of Solomon's Temple, Ka'b finds home. If he kneels in the right place, he can pray facing both Mecca and the holy stone on which the father of mankind descended in his fall from Eden: the Precious Stone, the Rock of Atonement, the Rock of Sacrifice, the Rock of the Ages, the Rock of Judgment. He founds a family. His son recounts the story.
While it does spin a tale--and well--the novel is really a skeleton upon which to drape a patchwork cloak of stories. Ka'b hails from a family of rabbis, and his role in the book, just as it was in history (such a Ka'b appears periodically in the annals of early Islam), is as a sourcebook of traditions.
The first Muslims of Arabia, Caliph Umar included, for all their beautiful epic poetry, were not a cultured people. They inherited through the Koran an immense and complicated cosmology that, for all its strength and beauty, left much unexplained. As a Jewish convert to Islam who met the Prophet, deeply versed in the Abrahamic tradition that all monotheists share, Ka'b acted as the exegete of meaning for a people with profound conviction and colossal, newfound power but almost no epistemological context. In history, as in the novel, Ka'b was the one who could advise on the traditions; he was the jurist of myth.
The Rock is a historical novel with a difference. While it traces the lives and developments of people who did exist and events that did happen, its real sources and ultimate focus are the traditions of monotheism. These center on the rock that now sits under the Dome on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in divided Jerusalem. In chronological order, these traditions describe the rock as that upon which Adam landed when he was banished from Paradise, the rock upon which Abraham was called to sacrifice his firstborn, the site of Solomon's Temple, where Jesus preached and from which Mohammed ascended on his tour of the seven heavens. These and countless other stories--all sourced in one or the other of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts--are delicately brought to life by Ka'b to help the first Muslims make Jerusalem theirs, physically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the first effect of the novel, achieved by going so deep into the competing and complementary myths about the place, is to remind its reader of the great arbitrariness that designated this rock to be the focal point of worship for half the world. It is, after all, just a rock. That some have seen it as a kind of warp-zone to heaven, others as being suspended between the two worlds of God and Man, and yet more as the launch pad of History (and Apocalypse) is testament to man's unflinching search for meaning, of which Makiya seems proud.
The second act of Makiya's performance, achieved via the endless interplay of the stories related by Ka'b, suggests an interpretation of how meaning works. Just as some literary critics argue that books owe more to those that precede them than to the historical context in which they were written, so Makiya insinuates that religious truth is dependent on and develops out of the canon of truth that precedes it. In his long appendix on the sources he has used, Makiya writes: "It is not always easy for readers to discern from the narrative whether a given story, or a particular detail within a story, or even a passage of scripture is Jewish, Muslim or Christian in origin. This was the way things were in Ka'b's time and place, if not in ours."
In providing an anatomy of the context out of which Muslim truth was articulated, Makiya has provided the foundations for an inquiry into the nature of religious ideas, particularly as they relate to Muslim society. That inquiry will stand on two pillars. The first is the profound acceptance of the fact that truth is always relative, that it must be looked at contextually and that it perpetuates itself. For when these things are forgotten, the letter will always overcome the spirit of religion. And the second is a hyper-self-conscious sense of symbolism that takes itself for what it is: an expression of meaning, not a truth in itself.
The Rock is a compendium of the monotheistic myths, the ultimate guide to the city of Jerusalem and a narrative history of the Muslim conquest as factually correct (or ambiguous) as any we might expect. But it is also a profoundly sensitive proposal for the basis of a new Islamic theology.
For the past few decades a virulent debate has been raging across the Muslim world, pitching Islam against modernity. It has been brought to a head by the events of September 11. In that context, Kanan Makiya's novel is as important a piece of political writing as any of his work to date.
Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin's magical world of islands and archipelagoes, is going through a period of intense, uncomfortable social change. The old ways no longer work and the new ones are not yet clear. At last there is a central government, though its young head of state is still establishing his authority, and it's bumpy going in the wild Kargish lands, where the religion, language and ethnicity are different and the women wear burqas. He has also encountered some resistance from the college of wizards at Roke, a theocratic caste that has ruled for centuries and become rather stiff and doctrinaire, as well as hateful toward women. Now Earthsea has suddenly been plunged into turmoil by two simultaneous assaults. One is an invasion of the collective unconscious by the voices and images of the dead, who beg to be set free from the dry land behind the wall of stones where they are confined. The other comes in fire from the skies, as dragons zoom in from the west to attack farm and forest. What is the reason for these threats? Are they connected? And does this society have what it takes to meet them?
Such are the themes of Ursula Le Guin's two new Earthsea books: Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind: the boundary between life and death, terror from the sky and how hard it is for male-dominant societies to listen to women. Timely themes, from an acknowledged master not only of fantasy but of science fiction as well, a feminist, anarchist and Green whose books are taught in universities, and who has won many literary prizes (five Nebulas, five Hugos, the National Book Award for children's literature, a Newbery silver medal, Horn book award). In a country that valued wisdom and symbolic thinking, these two books would have been met with hosannas from coast to coast.
Does it matter that they weren't? I think so. To me, Le Guin is not only one of the purest stylists writing in English but the most transcendently truthful of writers. The books she writes are not true in the way facts are true; they speak to a different kind of truth and satisfy a desire for narrative that is so fundamental it must be in our cells. As she puts it:
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious--symbol and archetype. Though they use words, they work the way music does: they short-circuit verbal reasoning, and go straight to the thoughts that lie too deep to utter. They cannot be translated fully into the language of reason, but only a Logical Positivist, who also finds Beethoven's Ninth Symphony meaningless, would claim that they are therefore meaningless. They are profoundly meaningful, and usable--practical--in terms of ethics; of insight; of growth.
"The Child and the Shadow" (1975), in The Language of the Night
Le Guin wrote the first three Earthsea books thirty years ago. A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the coming-of-age story of the boy Ged, who meddles in forbidden lore and summons up a rough, bearlike Shadow, who attacks and nearly kills him. The rest of the book concerns Ged's struggle to understand this Shadow, so strong it could bring destruction to the world unless he can defeat it. What is this rough beast? Why does it increasingly resemble him?
The second Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan (1970) takes place in the Kargish lands, which are separate from and more primitive than the rest of Earthsea. It is the story of Tenar, who as a small child became Arha, the Eaten One, priestess of the tombs of Atuan, ruled by the old earth powers of death, blood and brooding revenge. Into this dark underground labyrinth comes Ged, looking for the ring of Erreth-Akbe, which bears a lost rune of peace that can bring about a new era. Injured, starving, trapped, he is not strong enough to fight the old earth powers and escape unless Tenar helps him. Her entire upbringing urges her to kill him, but he is the first man she has ever seen as well as the first wizard, and she is tempted. In the end, she chooses life and escape, seeing that, by freeing him, she can also free herself. But then what? Where can she go once she is free?
Although Le Guin has been heavily influenced by Tolkien, her cosmology differed from his from the beginning. While both write of lands ruled by magic, Tolkien's Middle Earth has states and civil society; Earthsea has principalities but is more or less ruled by a caste of celibate priest-wizards centered on the Island of Roke, whose inborn mastery has been schooled at the college. In Earthsea, power of this kind is based on the Language of the Making which is also the language of dragons, only they are born knowing it; men have to learn it. Names in the Language of the Making are the thing, and knowledge of them confers power, over nature and over other people. A wizard who knows someone's true name can control him. But mature wizards do not use their power any more than they have to, for the ruling principle of Le Guin's world is not Tolkien's struggle between good and evil, but equilibrium, balance. Earthsea is a Taoist world (Le Guin has actually translated the Tao Te Ching), where light and dark, life and death are yin and yang, intertwined rather than opposed. The world gets out of balance when one side of an opposition gets too strong: light, wizardry, men. When men of power use their knowledge to fence themselves off from the dailiness of ordinary life--farming, mending, giving birth, and women--trouble is coming. Such hubris can lead to denial of death itself. It does in the third book, The Farthest Shore (1972).
The Farthest Shore begins with the inexplicable: magic, the organizing principle of Earthsea, is failing and no one knows why. Gradually it becomes clear that a destroyer has arisen, a terribly powerful wizard, Cob, who awakens the terror of death while promising immortality to any who will follow him. His followers drift in dumb despair, work ceases and meaning drains out of the world. Ged, now Archmage (head of the wizard's council), and his young disciple Lebannen, destined to be the long-awaited king, must trace this peril to its source and defeat it. To do so, they must cross the wall of stones into the dry land, the land of death, where no wind blows, no sun shines, and people, still trapped in the prison of their names, wander forever, unable even to recognize those they once loved.
Through many perils Ged and Lebannen seek the physical entrance to the dry land but can only find it when aided by dragons. The plague of despair has affected the dragons too; their young are killing one another and drowning themselves in the sea, and even the wisest are in danger of losing their language and themselves. After a hard pursuit and struggle in the dry land, Lebannen and Ged together defeat Cob and Ged reseals the gap between life and death. But in doing so, he drains his own power; he is no longer a wizard, no longer strong enough even to walk. Lebannen must carry him over the Mountain of Pain, which is the only exit from the dry land, to the beach, where the dragon Kalessin, the eldest, awaits them. Now that Ged has lost his power, he can no longer be Archmage; Kalessin flies him on past Roke to his home island of Gont. But Lebannen will be crowned king and bring about a new era under the rune of peace that Ged and Tenar brought from underground so many years before.
So ends Le Guin's third Earthsea book. She thought it was the last. Then, twenty years later, she suddenly wrote a sequel, Tehanu (1990). I interviewed her at that time and asked her why. She said she had to tell what happened to Tenar. She had tried to earlier but couldn't; she was too caught in the tradition of heroic male fantasy to be able to figure out what would happen to a woman in a Tolkien world. "That is why I had to write this fourth volume, because I changed. I had to show the other side."
But what is the other side of heroic male fantasy? The answer is not as simple as flipping a coin with King Arthur on one side, Britomart on the other. Traditionally there are only four possible roles for women in this sort of book: absent beloved, evil witch, damsel in distress and girl warrior. Can one make room for real women without undermining the fundamental premises of the genre?
From Le Guin's practice, it would appear not. Tenar became a farmer's wife because...what else can she do on Gont? This is farm country, after all, and while she has some kind of power, it is not the kind of power of which wizards are made. Even if it were, they would never train her on Roke, where the wizards have the kind of attitude toward women one tends to find in celibate priesthoods. A widow now, Tenar has adopted Therru, a little girl who was beaten and raped and almost burned up in a fire by her parents, so that one of her arms is withered and one whole side of her face is a hardened shell of scars. Therru too has some kind of power but nobody knows what it is. Tehanu begins where The Farthest Shore ends, as the dragon Kalessin delivers Ged into Tenar's care. Tenar has always loved him, and the two finally get together, overcoming his lifelong celibacy and his shame at having lost his power. But peril persists from those who followed the destroyer and, at the end, they can be saved only by the little burnt girl Therru, who calls the dragon back in the Language of the Making, a language she has never been taught. "Tehanu," he names the child, and calls her daughter. We are left wondering, how can this damaged, tormented little girl also be a dragon?
After eleven more years, Le Guin answered that question with Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind, which do more than undermine the conventions of heroic male fantasy; they retrospectively transform the very history she created in the first three Earthsea books. There are five stories in Tales From Earthsea, but the central one is "Dragonfly." Dragonfly is a big, ungainly country girl, whose real name is Irian. Like Tenar and Tehanu, she has some kind of power nobody can exactly name. She knows she isn't like other people and wants to find out what she is. Finally she encounters somebody willing to take her to Roke to find out. But when she gets there, she comes up against a wall. In the absence of an Archmage, Roke has become factionalized. Thorion, the Summoner, had followed Ged and Lebannen into the dry land. He stayed there too long and was thought dead; now he has somehow returned to life, by the power of his will, and seeks to rule, to become Archmage and preserve the old ways. He says no woman can be admitted into the school on Roke; Irian must leave the island. The wizards are divided; the Master Patterner, Azver, lets her stay with him in the Immanent Grove, and begins to love her. Yet he, like the few others who are willing to deal with her, seems paralyzed; none of them have the strength to stand against the dead man, Thorion, and those who follow him. So when Thorion finally comes to throw Irian off the island, she must defend herself. She challenges Thorion to meet her on Roke Knoll, the hill where things can only be what they truly are:
The air was darkening around them. The west was only a dull red line, the eastern sky was shadowy above the sea.
The Summoner looked up at Irian. Slowly he raised his arms and the white staff in the invocation of a spell, speaking in the tongue that all the wizards and mages of Roke had learned, the language of their art, the Language of the Making: "Irian, by your name I summon you and bind you to obey me!"
She hesitated, seeming for a moment to yield, to come to him, and then cried out, "I am not only Irian."
At that the Summoner ran up towards her, reaching out, lunging at her as if to seize and hold her. They were both on the hill now. She towered above him impossibly, fire breaking forth between them, a flare of red flame in the dusk air, a gleam of red-gold scales, of vast wings--then that was gone, and there was nothing there but the woman standing on the hill path and the tall man bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to earth, and lying on it.
When the others come up to him, he is only "a huddle of clothes and dry bones and a broken staff." Aghast, they ask Irian who she is. She says she does not know. "She spoke...as she had spoken to the Summoner, in the Language of the Making, the tongue the dragons speak." She says goodbye to Azver, whom she loves, touching his hand and burning him in the process, then goes up the hill.
As she went farther from them they saw her, all of them, the great gold-mailed flanks, the spiked, coiling tail, the talons, the breath that was bright fire. On the crest of the knoll she paused a while, her long head turning to look slowly round the Isle of Roke, gazing longest at the Grove, only a blur of darkness in darkness now. Then with a rattle like the shaking of sheets of brass the wide, vaned wings opened and the dragon sprang up into the air, circled Roke Knoll once, and flew.
The Other Wind continues this theme of women who are also dragons, and plays it off against another central theme of these books, the relationship between life and death. For the terrible breach between life and death made by Cob continues. Now the dead have started appearing to the living in dreams, coming to the stone wall at the dry hill, begging to be set free, as if death were a prison. And at the same time, wild dragons have come to take back the land from men; they have come even to Havnor, where the young king, Lebannen, holds court under the rune of peace. All the patterns, clues and oppositions, set up over thirty years in five other books, come to fruition and are worked out in The Other Wind, but the book is so dependent on what came before, so complex, it is impossible to explicate here. It must be read--after the others--then thought on long and hard, for its meanings are not immediately manifest.
Long after reading, certain images stay in the mind. One is the dry land, this prison of death, and its relationship to immortality through the mastery of naming, of language. Another is women who are also dragons, who can find no place here on earth but must fly off beyond the west, on the other wind. Irian, excluded by the men of power, with only a few defenders, who are outnumbered and outweighed by the dead hand--there's plenty of resonance here for any woman who ever found herself a little bit too far ahead of the affirmative-action curve. As far as gender goes, these books seem to me a true symbolic picture of where we are now, with no untainted source of male power, no mature authoritative leadership of any kind, caught midway in our evolution as social beings, still trying to struggle up out of the ooze onto the land, no longer tadpoles and not yet frogs.
Science fiction and heroic fantasy began as the province of men, and the gradual entry of women into these genres has not necessarily produced more psychological depth overall. The best writers (including Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Neil Gaiman, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ and Le Guin herself) have given us complex re-visionings of gender and power relations. But most writers have ambitions no higher than those of their counterparts who write in other commercial genres like espionage, crime or romance.
That is why Tales From Earthsea and The Other Wind are cause for celebration: they are books by a master stylist writing at the height of her powers. Although plenty of mass market fantasy is written in extremely pedestrian prose, style is key in fantasy, as in poetry. For fantasy is a pure creation of the imagination, summoned unto existence by the language of the making. Le Guin's style is as spare, plain, American and transparent as a northern lake: no tricks, no razzle-dazzle, no lists. "Why," she asks in an early essay, "is style of such fundamental significance in fantasy?"
because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer's vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks.... There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional response, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls "a secondary universe" is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator's voice. And every word counts.
From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, (1973)
If Le Guin is such a master and these books are so good, why have they been smuggled into the bookstore, largely unnoticed except in the professional reviewing periodicals? To understand the answer to this question, one must look at how genre is viewed in America and at the tyranny of contemporary realism in literary fiction.
Until the triumph of capitalism in the nineteenth century, the source of literature was thought to be the imagination, and the realistic novel was considered an inferior form, earthbound, compared to poetry, drama and the epic. In Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, and even in the later, more contested work of the Brontës, Hawthorne and Melville, psychological realism exists in happy symbiosis with ghosts, fairies, demons and supernatural whales. With the triumph of capital and its handmaidens, science and rationalism, came a changed aesthetic. By the mid-twentieth century, the realistic novel of contemporary life had become so much the norm for serious fiction, at least in the United States, that anything else was trivialized or confined to a genre ghetto. We are, after all, a country run by hardheaded men who know the value of a dollar and who want no truck with moonshine. Many boast that they never read fiction. In such a culture, "magic realism" was acceptable only because it was imported; exceptions are always allowed for foreign luxury goods.
So strong was the idea that serious fiction must be a realistic picture of the present time that in the 1960s, when American novels began to combine some aspects of contemporary realism with monsters, ghosts, bodily organs run amok and other wild fancies (Ellison, Heller, Pynchon, Roth, Morrison), the writers were still considered realists or else given special dispensation as African-Americans, who, like foreigners, could be allowed their own cultural traditions because they were too marginal to threaten the mainstream aesthetic and politics. Living writers whose work was not grounded in a realistic, contemporary premise were relegated to the nursery or confined to special ghettos in the bookstore (historical fiction, science fiction, romance, fantasy), as though disqualified by genre from being shelved with "literature."
But surely this does not apply anymore; isn't this the Age of Harry Potter, when fantasy is king? Not exactly. It depends what sort of fantasy, and why. How different are the Harry Potter books really, in style and substance, from contemporary realism? Are they not parodies of same, combining realistic conventions with magical appliances and the war between good and evil? Is this parodic incongruity not, in fact, the reason they are so much fun? From the pinstriped cloak worn by the Minister of Magic to the disgusting variety of Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans, the culture of the Harry Potter books is a faithful reflection of English schoolboy culture, including the cliques and teasing of the boarding school books that have molded generations.
And have they been treated seriously, as literature, or as a marketing phenomenon?
I would guess 90 percent of the articles I have read about J.K. Rowling deal with her not as a writer but as the commercial equivalent of a comet whizzing into the atmosphere from out of nowhere, a poor single mum writing her first book in a Scottish cafe. It's a great story, but you can only be a nine days' wonder once. After the novelty wears off, the commercial pressure remains; you are expected to do the same thing again and again and again, varying it no more than one flavor of yogurt varies from another. Every successful writer is faced with this choice: Do you stay faithful to the inner voice or turn yourself into a marketable commodity, producing a new product of the same kind every year or two? There are great social and economic rewards for the commodity production of the self.
Ursula Le Guin is doing something different. She has gone her own way, written forty books, not one of them either predictable or commercially motivated. She probably drives the industry crazy; it doesn't even know whether to classify the Earthsea books as children's literature or adult. In her foreword to Tales From Earthsea, she has some interesting things to say about commodification and why we read fantasy:
All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation.... It's unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable.... So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks; it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied...advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.
Le Guin's writing is on the edge, which is perhaps the same as the margins: idiosyncratic and hard to pin down. She is the kind of writer businessmen hate most, producing challenging, unpredictable books whose meanings are too elusive to be easily controlled. I can almost hear them saying, "No Earthsea books since 1990 and now two books in the same year? Hasn't she heard of regular marketing intervals?"
Unlike Le Guin's science fiction, her fantasies are not overtly political. The two genres have become almost interchangeable at the mass market level, but have different parents: science fiction derives from Victorian scientific speculation by writers like Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, while fantasy grew out of myth. Le Guin's science fiction is about social and political life; some reads like ethnographies of imaginary societies, some deals with revolution. Because of its social themes, it appears more political than her fantasies, which deal with the inner life.
Nonetheless, the Earthsea books are profoundly radical because they lead one to think and feel outside of regular realistic patterns and the details of everyday life, laying depth charges that bring up long-forgotten reveries of childhood, unrecognized forms of heroism, secret challenges to power. Softly, elusively, they tear away at the wall of stones that keeps us in the dry land, the arid land of adulthood, the land of death-in-life, where so many of us spend so much of our time; they let the wind into our imaginations, and help to set us free.
In the United States the writer tends to become an entrepreneur, competing with other literary vendors marketing their characters and language, their humor or drama, to a skeptical and distracted public. In Israel, it seems, they order things differently. For a nation perpetually in crisis, with an ancient prophetic tradition behind it, the serious writer remains something of a sage, a wisdom figure who speaks with authority. Amos Oz has been such a presence on the Israeli scene for close to four decades, publishing not only novels and stories but political journalism, literary essays and Op-Ed columns, never wholly disengaging his state of mind from the state of the nation. Yet his public pronouncements, always as beautifully crafted as his fiction, have never laid to rest the inner demons that power his creative work. This is especially evident in his newest novel, The Same Sea. Despite its deceptively light tone, it reads like one of the most personal books he has yet written.
The Same Sea is at once spare and lushly experimental, an unusual mixture of hard, precise prose that drives the story forward and often lyrical, evocative verse that bathes us in the mental glow of each of the characters. The musical qualities of this verse, strong in Hebrew, are largely lost in translation, but its strategic line-breaks and numerous biblical echoes, especially from the Song of Songs, save it from becoming altogether prosaic. The story is so simple that the author can sum it up in his opening lines. It centers on a triangle familiar from some of Oz's earlier books--the mild, practical father; the languid, troubled mother, who has recently died; and their only son, who has fled home in the wake of her death and, in this case, gone off mountaineering in Tibet. It would not seem possible for a writer to build his novel around three characters whom we never see in one another's company: the widowed father, trying half-heartedly to resume his life, the deceased mother, not yet fully accepting her death, and the distant son, surrounded by his mother's palpable presence, sleeping with women who bring her back to him, trying aimlessly to outrun his grief.
Yet this is a book in which the dead are never wholly dead, where memory and meditation are more vibrant than action, while time and distance are seen less as objective facts than as constantly varying states of mind. It's also a book in which the fictional narrator, who resembles the author in every biographical detail, repeatedly emerges from behind the proscenium to sort out his own memories, which are precisely the ones that fed into the story. Just as the characters swarm about him, they inhabit one another's minds as well, communicating across continents with some of the mobility and omniscience an author usually reserves for himself.
In short, this is a book about someone writing a novel, showing us how it lives within him while it is also spilling out onto the page. Yet somehow, even at this remove from direct storytelling, the characters resonate. Amos Oz has written other versions of this father, this mother, this boy, in Hill of Evil Counsel, for example, but never has mingled them so clearly with his own past, which instead of fading has grown more insistent with time. Confronting mortality himself, he feels more impelled to take stock of his own dead. The loss of his parents, especially his mother's suicide when he was 13, still obsesses him as he approaches 60. The narrator even has one of his characters, the son's carefree 26-year-old girlfriend, try to talk him out of his brooding mood. "Your mother killed herself/and left you quite shattered.... But for how long? Your whole life?/The way I see it being in mourning for your mother for forty-five years is/pretty ridiculous." The narrator sees it differently. How can he bail out? "How can you jump from a plane/that's already crashed and rusted or sunk under the waves?" For him the dead continue to haunt the living. Yet what she says has the authentic ring of the younger generation, and the author, with the warm generosity of Chekhov, respects its callow wisdom and healthy insensitivity, which part of him would love to emulate.
The Same Sea is magnanimous toward characters who could just as well be brutally satirized or dismissed--the coarse yuppie always on the lookout for a good deal, the ill-favored film producer, hopelessly unlucky with women, who becomes fixated on a character in a script, the girl who casually sleeps with nearly all the male characters, including (almost) her boyfriend's widowed father. An underlying tenderness softens their hard edges. As in a Renoir film or Chekhov story, they somehow surprise the reader into sympathy and a wistful tolerance. Unexpectedly, too, they begin to nurture one another.
One feature of this enchanting book that I have already mentioned stands out most strikingly. As the story unfolds, the author keeps intervening in it, at first pushing his pad aside and wondering "how on earth/he came to write such a story," but gradually interacting with his characters, commenting on the film script that the girlfriend is trying to sell, offering little scenes from his writing life and recollecting his own parents and childhood. At first it seems he is playing a postmodern game, violating the boundaries of the novel by wantonly mixing poetry and prose, fact and fiction, puncturing our suspension of disbelief. Worse still, we wonder whether the writer is simply losing interest in his own story, taking it over. But it soon becomes clear that, on the contrary, the story is so real to him that the people in it have invaded his life, and not only when he sits composing at his desk.
As he works in the garden, all the people in his head, real and imagined--where to draw the line?--the dead and the living, his children, his grandchildren, the characters from the novel, all his own selves, seem right there with him, tossed up from the same sea, pitching in despite their different views of how the gardener's work should be done. This is a fanciful conceit, often used in the Renaissance for poetic creation, yet something about it rings ingeniously true. This is no symbolic landscape of ideas and images but a scene showing us the writer himself, away from his work but with his mind still abuzz. In this flux, paradoxically, he feels a contentment that allows him to set his demons aside, the dead who will not stay dead, the characters who insist on a life of their own, the fears for the future that poison the present: "Grief fear and shame are as far from me today as one dream is/from another," he says. "Whatever I have lost I forget, whatever has hurt me has faded,/whatever I have given up on I have given up on, whatever I am left with/will do." For the time being, at least, he can dwell in the moment. "Later I'll go back to my desk," he concludes, "and maybe I'll manage to bring back/the young man who went off to the mountains to seek the sea/that was there all the time right outside his own home."
A review of Looking Backward 2000–1887, by Edward Bellamy.
About a year ago, Amit Chaudhuri published in the Times Literary Supplement a panoramic survey of the past century or so of Indian writing and its reception in the West. He observed there that the postcolonial Indian novel tends to be celebrated as a hybrid form in the West, with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children eclipsing all previous Indian writing. Unhappily, critics seem to believe that the postcolonial totality of India can only be articulated by Indian novelists writing in English. Yet the novella, Chaudhuri argued, is an equally important form in the vernaculars (there are around twenty major languages and countless dialects with their individual literary traditions in India), as is the short story, and ellipsis is often more effective than all-inclusiveness in attempting to describe India. The tendency to forget that vernacular Indian literatures existed long before Salman Rushdie's brilliant experiment with magical realism--or Vikram Seth's presentation of India as a mosaic of epic proportions in A Suitable Boy--sets a problematic yardstick for judging Indian writing in English. It leads one to think that the Indian narrative is essentially "lush and overblown," whereas the literary traditions of India are actually much more delicately nuanced. Chaudhuri also suggested that hybridization of language is not the only tool for conveying the otherness of perception: Even the correct English of writers like V.S. Naipaul has otherness implicit in it.
To Chaudhuri, who is Bengali, this otherness takes the form of returning to older regional traditions of India. His literary forebears include the Bengali writers of what is known as the kallol jug--which was roughly around the second quarter of the twentieth century in Bengal--rather than contemporaries like Rushdie or Seth. As such, his novels have strong affinities to a specific movement in Bengali literature that attempted to capture the humdrum and the quotidian, though his audience is more the yuppie Indian who constantly juggles English and the vernacular than the educated Bengali middle-class bhadralok. Even the code-switching between Bengali and English--and the occasional Hindi--in Chaudhuri's novels seems to be an attempt to tell the story of the Westernized but ordinary Bengali, rather than hybridization or what Rushdie calls the pickling of language. It is also the story of polyglot India, where most of the population speaks, and habitually switches among, several languages. And mellifluous as Chaudhuri is at times, no one can accuse him of writing overblown prose.
In writing his fourth novel, A New World, Chaudhuri seems to have remained true to his critical principles: The result is not quite likely to make readers in Calcutta swoon but a novel that is as much an attempt to capture the macrocosm of India in a microcosm as it is an attempt to carry on a particular vernacular tradition in English. And to those who have never been to Calcutta, it offers a refreshingly low-key and intimate insight into the heart of the city.
In A New World, a quest for solace brings the protagonist to Calcutta to seek the comforts of the familiar rituals of his parents' home. Jayojit Chatterjee, a not-so-young professor of economics at a Midwestern US college, is back for the summer with his son in tow. Normally, his parents would have been overjoyed. But neither Jayojit nor his parents can get over the fact that the family is now broken, that Jayojit's wife has divorced him. Jayojit has recently won partial custody of his young son, Bonny, and the visit to Calcutta promises to become an annual summer retreat, an escape from his adopted country to the land of his birth.
Divorce has familiarized Jayojit with a new world of frozen pizzas and TV dinners. It also seems to have made him acutely attuned to the harmonies and dissonances of lives around him. One of the clichés about storytelling is that plots are essentially of two kinds--either someone undertakes a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In such a schema, this novel would appear to fall into both categories. Jayojit may not be a stranger visiting Calcutta, but he has certainly moved far from the roots to which he has temporarily returned. He stays with his parents, runs across his neighbors, moves around the city and muses on his married life and the attempt at a second, arranged marriage that he had made on his last visit home a year previously. Daily life in Calcutta is familiar, yet no longer quite familiar. Family photos still clutter the drawing-room table, only now there is a gaping hole in this tapestry of faces--all the pictures of Jayojit's ex-wife Amala have been removed. Her absence haunts the family perhaps more than her presence would have. Nothing sensational happens in Calcutta, not even another attempt at arranging a marriage. Jayojit's visit affects no one but his parents--but the details of a humdrum holiday are meticulously captured.
There is something very familiar about this stillness to anyone who has spent any time in Calcutta. I remember this torpor from countless summer holidays spent in the city, so it is no surprise that Jayojit neglects the book he is planning to write. I also remember vendors selling Kwality ice cream--a brief respite from the oppressive heat, which Bonny yearns for--from pushcarts.
Like New York's pushcart hot dogs and Bangkok's curbside satays, Calcutta also has its distinctive street fare--the rolls, jhaalmuri, phuchka and bhelpuri sold by vendors--whose taste simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. Jayojit's brief interaction with a bhelpuri seller brings back to this reviewer many memories of the tangy snack, flavored with spiced tamarind water, sold by a particular vendor near Sunny Park in the city. A New World speaks to the expatriate reader of little, intimate, everyday things in Calcutta, reminiscent of the way that Amitav Ghosh's Shadow Lines, a novel set partly in that city, did a few years ago.
Chaudhuri's book almost self-consciously tries to be different from the usual Indian writing in English. To put things in perspective, consider Raj Kamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread, the other novel set in Calcutta that has recently been published in America. An interesting foil to A New World, it is nothing if not sensational in plot and incidents. Its narrator is another not-quite-young man, but one who has a secret to reveal--and has just one night to write it all down. In the bedroom a newborn child lies on a blue bedspread; in the adjacent room, the narrator struggles to give voice to a mosaic of stories from his and his sister's past that can be pieced together to reveal the truth, insofar as truth may be known. The idea is clever but the secret obvious from page five onward. Of course, the ingenious aspect of Jha's plot is the frame that the story needs to be written in a matter of hours--which means that any rough edges and disjunctions in the text are automatically to be excused, the way amateurish camera work was in, say, The Blair Witch Project. This accounts for inconsistencies in the story line, and the series of deliberately unreliable narrative perspectives only helps further the cause. Judging by its reception in the West, however, he pitched his story to the right audience: the Western critic who, by all appearances, has little idea of what Calcutta is like, is willing to give Jha credit for having done for Calcutta what Joyce did for Dublin (as a reviewer wrote in the New York Times). Critics also laud Jha for letting the incestuous cat out of the bag of a repressive India. That particular cat, however, has always roamed at large in Vedic creation myths and vernacular writings. In fact, over a decade ago, Safdar Hashmi, one of India's foremost theater personalities, was assassinated by Hindu fundamentalists for staging one of the earliest mentions of incest in Indian literature: a little-known version of the epic Ramayana in which the hero Rama's queen is also his sister. Jha certainly explores the eternally sensitive issue of incest in contemporary society as his narrator tells overlapping pieces of the story, and he even throws in a bit of sodomy and pederasty for good measure; but his method is a tabloid-ish piling of sensation upon sensation that might, at best, be an unfortunate outcome of his training as a journalist.
Unlike Chaudhuri, who tries to produce a miniaturist's portrait of Calcutta by adding brush stroke upon brush stroke of minutely observed detail, Jha sets out to write the novel that will lay bare the heart of Calcutta but loses his way in the quagmire of sensational revelations. This is a pity, as the novel has its occasional and redeeming moments of brilliance:
Just outside the oil mill, a couple of feet to the right of its entrance, were the birds. In a large cage, more like a coop, the kind you see at the Alipore Zoo, slightly smaller, the size of an average storeroom in an average house...people stopped by to look at these dozen birds in the cage.
Flying round and round, grey and white, grey and white. On certain rainy days, when the sky was dark, it seemed tiny clouds had slipped into the cage each dragging with it just a little bit of the sky. And then one afternoon in 1977, the oil mill closed down. Just like that, all of a sudden.
Too bad the novel does not contain more quiet gems like this passage. On the other hand, India has long been imagined as the land of elephants and tigers, jungles and sadhus, snake-charmers and the vanishing-rope trick, so why blame the author for catering to popular fantasies?
If The Blue Bedspread is a psychological study, then A New World is probably best described as an anthropological exercise. It undoubtedly offers one of the more lyrical descriptions of Bengali life that exists in English fiction. Jayojit's mother is the quintessential Bengali homemaker of a particular generation: She welcomes him home with a fond "You've put on weight, have you" but also reverses herself to "Where--I don't think you've put on weight" when he protests against eating too much. His father, a retired rear admiral and patriot who had sided with the Nationalists against the British, is nonetheless a holdover from the colonial days and eats, brown sahib style, with a fork and spoon. He is the detached head of the family, who still maintains an "inconsequential tyrannical hold over this household, in which usually only he and his wife lived, with part-time servants coming and going each day." Neither parent can quite accept their son's divorce: "they seemed to feel the incompleteness of their family, and that it would not be now complete. Someone was missing. Both mother and father were too hurt to speak of it. In a strange way, they felt abandoned." This feeling of bereftness is perhaps only to be expected. Divorce is still a relatively rare occurrence in India. Not surprisingly, when the parents try to arrange the second marriage for their son, it is to a fellow divorcée. The family doctor gets involved as an intermediary, a situation not unusual in the delicate rituals of matchmaking. She, unlike Jayojit, is childless, a crucial consideration for the still-patriarchal Calcutta society.
On the lighter side, Bengali idiosyncrasies like the obsession with traveling are gleefully dwelt upon. The Admiral's ire against Bangladesh Biman remains unclear till he sardonically observes, "Every week tens of middle-class Bengalis who've been saving up all their lives queue up in the airport to travel by Bangladesh Biman--to visit their son or daughter in England, or to travel: you know the Bengali weakness for 'bhraman'?" referring to the well-known Bengali obsession with globetrotting. His own projected trip to visit Jayojit had been derailed by his son's divorce. The thankless but socially necessary habit of keeping track of obscure relationships gets some ribbing--"Jayojit's mother's late brother-in-law's niece had a husband whose sister had married Bijon, who himself had no children." And Dr. Sen, the neighbor and friend of the Chatterjees, chuckles over how Bengalis "only come out during the Pujas. Then you'll see them--heh, heh--bowing before Ma Durga!" No believer dares run the risk of offending the goddess who once saved the very gods from calamity.
Chaudhuri's nuanced ear for language is likewise directed at readers familiar with Bengali. Jayojit's mother greets her grandson with a "Esho shona.... Come to thamma." Bonny, who speaks little Bengali, cannot pronounce the hard th. "All right, tamma," he says. Unfortunately, not every attempt to transliterate words is equally happy. The phrase "How much" might have been better transcribed as "koto" than "kato," which suggests the Bengali imperative "cut"; and the "Hay" in "Hay bhelpuri" sounds more like the lofty address "O" than "yes." What jars more is Chaudhuri's tendency to italicize words in an attempt to convey Bengali speech rhythms--it becomes wearisome. (Unlike English, word stress in Bengali is not predetermined but changes with the speaker.)
While this novel remains a bold attempt to transfer to Indian writing in English some of the characteristics of vernacular literatures, it is not without other, deeper problems. One can, after all, read of beads of moisture condensing on the outside of glasses of cold water and heads of dead fish only so many times before wondering where such aestheticized details lead. Also, given that Dhaka is a half-hour ahead of Calcutta, it's a pity that Chaudhuri's chronological error in claiming that "although they'd [Jayojit and Bonny] left Calcutta at half-past seven, it was still seven-thirty in Bangladesh" was not rectified in the editorial process. On a lesser note, one would also like to quibble over Chaudhuri's referring to phuchkas as golgappas, a term that is common in Bombay, where Chaudhuri grew up, but which many Calcuttans might not recognize.
Good translations of vernacular Indian writing are scarce in English, but there are several collections of Rabindranath Tagore's fiction available here, the best of which perhaps are those by William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson; Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) offers three tales about tribal women--the most marginalized among the marginal--of a significantly different flavor; and the two-volume Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by K. Lalita and Susie J. Tharu, is a good anthology for a historical overview, albeit with a gender bias. Nitpicking aside, A New World is definitely worth reading. Nowhere close to the best writing available in India's regional languages, it is still a creditable endeavor and should be appreciated as such.
A review of The Hill Bachelors, by William Trevor.
The quiet grace of Ring Lardner Jr., who died the other week at 85, seemed at odds with these noisy, thumping times. I cannot imagine Ring playing Oprah or composing one of those terribly earnest essays, "writers on writing," that keep bubbling to the surface of the New York Times. He was rightly celebrated
for personal and political courage but underestimated, it seems to me, as a protean writer who was incapable of composing an awkward sentence. It ran against Ring's nature to raise his voice. Lesser writers, who shouted, drew more acclaim, or anyway more attention.
The obituaries celebrated his two Academy Awards but made less of other achievements. Ring's novel,The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, begun in 1950 while he was serving his now-famous prison sentence for contempt of Congress, drew a transatlantic fan letter from Sean O'Casey. Ring felt sufficiently pleased to have the longhand note framed under glass, which he then slipped into a shirt drawer. He was not about advertisements for himself. In 1976 he published The Lardners: My Family Remembered. Garson Kanin commented, "In the American aristocracy of achievement, the Lardners are among the bluest of blue bloods. In Ring Lardner, Jr. they have found a chronicler worthy of his subject. The Lardners is a moving, comical, patriotic book."
The progenitor was, of course, Ring Lardner Sr., the great short-story writer, who sired four sons, each of whom wrote exceedingly well. James Lardner was killed during the Spanish Civil War; David died covering the siege of Aachen during World War II; a heart attack killed John in 1960, when he was 47. Add Ring's prison term to the necrology and you would not have what immediately looks to be the makings of a "moving, comical" book. But The Lardners was that and more because of Ring Jr.'s touch and slant and his overview of what E.E. Cummings called "this busy monster, manunkind."
From time to time, Ring published splendid essays. The one form he avoided was the short story. He wrote, "I did not want to undertake any enterprise that bore the risk of inviting comparison with my father or the appearance of trading on his reputation."
We became close in the days following the death of John Lardner, who was, quite simply, the best sports columnist I have read. I set about preparing a collection, The World of John Lardner, and Ring, my volunteer collaborator, found an unfinished serio-humorous "History of Drinking in America." He organized random pages with great skill. Reading them I learned that the favorite drink of the Continentals, shivering at Valley Forge, was a Pennsylvania rye called Old Monongahela. George Washington called it "stinking stuff." At headquarters the general sipped Madeira wine.
A year or so later, with the blacklist still raging, I picked up Ring for lunch at the Chateau Marmont, an unusual apartment hotel on Sunset Boulevard near Hollywood. Outside the building, a fifty-foot statue of a cowgirl, clad in boots and a bikini, rotated on the ball of one foot, advertising a Las Vegas hotel. I asked the room clerk for Mr. Robert Leonard. Ring was writing some forgotten movie, but could not then work under his own name. "Robert Leonard" matched the initials on his briefcase.
This was a pleasant November day, but the blinds above Ring's portable typewriter were drawn. When I asked why, he opened them. His desk sat facing the bikinied cowgirl, bust-high. Every eighteen seconds those giant breasts came spinning round. "Makes it hard to work," Ring said and closed the blinds.
The Saturday Evening Post was reinventing itself during the 1960s, on the way to dying quite a glorious death, and with my weighty title there, editor at large, I urged Clay Blair, who ran things, to solicit a piece from Ring about the blacklist. Ring responded with a touching, sometimes very funny story that he called "The Great American Brain Robbery." He explained, "With all these pseudonyms, I work as much as ever. But the producers now pay me about a tenth of what they did when I was allowed to write under my own name."
Clay Blair lived far right of center, but Ring's story conquered him, and he said, "Marvelous. Just one thing. He doesn't say whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Ask him to put that in the story."
"I won't do that, Clay."
"He chose jail, rather than answer that question."
"Then, if he still won't, will he tell us why he won't?"
Ring composed a powerful passage.
The impulse to resist assaults on freedom of thought has motivated witnesses who could have answered no to the Communist question as well as many, like myself, whose factual response would have been yes. I was at that time a member of the Communist party, in whose ranks I found some of the most thoughtful, witty and generally stimulating men and women in Hollywood, I also encountered a number of bores and unstable characters.... My political activity had already begun to dwindle at the time [Congressman J. Parnell] Thomas popped the question, and his only effect on my affiliation was to prolong it until the case was finally lost. At that point I could and did terminate my membership without confusing the act, in my own or anyone else's head, with the quite distinct struggle for the right to embrace any belief or set of beliefs to which my mind and conscience directed me.
These words drove a silver stake into the black heart of the blacklist.
Ring won his first Oscar for Woman of the Year in 1942, and when he won his second, for M*A*S*H in 1970, numbers of his friends responded with cheering and tears of joy. The ceremony took place early in 1971, and Ring accepted the statuette with a brief speech. "At long last a pattern has been established in my life. At the end of every twenty-eight years I get one of these. So I will see you all again in 1999."
Indeed. Early in the 1990s I lobbied a producer who had bought film rights to my book The Boys of Summer, to engage Ring for the screenplay. Ring, close to 80, worked tirelessly. A screenplay is a fictive work, and Ring moved a few days and episodes about for dramatic purposes. His scenario ended with the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series from the Yankees and my account of that ballgame landing my byline on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. The sports editor is congratulating me on a coherent piece when the telephone rings: My father has fallen dead on a street in Brooklyn; I am to proceed to Kings County Hospital and identify his body.
As I, or the character bearing my name, move toward the morgue, I bump into two beer-drunk Dodgers fans. One says, "What's the matter with him?" The other says, "He's sober. That's the matter with him." The body is there. It is my father's body. Beer drunks behind us, my mother and I embrace. Fin.
I can only begin to suggest all that Ring's scene implies. I would start with the point that winning the World Series is not the most important thing on earth, or even in Brooklyn. I was always careful not to embarrass Ring with praise, but here I blurted out, "This is the best bleeping screenplay I've ever read, Ringgold. Oscar III may come true in '99."
"Curious," Ring said. "I seem to have had the same thought myself."
The blacklisting bounders were now dead, but a new generation of Hollywood hounds refused to shoot Ring Lardner's scenario. The grounds: "a father-son angle" was not commercial. "It worked in Hamlet," Ring said, but to unhearing ears. And then we were talking about Ring writing a screenplay for a book I published in 1999 about Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties. "Have to cut it back a bit," Ring said. "Following your text would give us the first billion-dollar picture."
Years ago, the critic Clifton Fadiman wrote that Ring Lardner Sr. was an unconscious artist and that his power proceeded from his hatred of the characters he created. Ring told me: "If my father hated anyone or anything, it was a critic like Fadiman. Unconscious artist? My father knew perfectly well how good he was and--better than anyone else--how hard it was to be that good."
Ring Jr. knew the very same thing about himself. Or so I believe. Yeats writes, "The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work." As well as anyone in our time, my suddenly late friend Ring Lardner came pretty damn close to achieving perfection in both.