“… overwhelmed by the dizzying madness of reality”: Yoss’ ‘A Planet for Rent’

The idea of the voyage was Jowe’s, and when he speaks of it, the words that emerge from his lips sound like beauty itself.”

Space-faring science fiction has often been associated with the narrative of colonialism. There is more than a kernel of truth to this assertion: Galactic exploration across the terra nullius of open space, chiseled pioneers opening the gates to the unknown, and Contact stories that invariably portray alien species as the impenetrable Other, incomprehensible at best and dreaded enemies at worst. Starship Troopers is a particularly crude version of this phenomenon, while Avatar is a more subtle account that ostensibly undermines the tropes while continuing to reinforce them.

Sooner or late, of course, each narrative produces its counter-narrative. In Embassytown, China Mieville writes of Contact gone horribly wrong, as cynical human attempts to exploit a species incapable of telling a lie descend into a bloody conflict. But if Mieville’s novel is still written from the perspective of colonizing humans, it is Jose Miguel Sanchez Gomez – or “Yoss” – in whose work we find a true “writing back” to the dominant register. Yoss is a Cuban punk-rocker science-fiction writer with a degree in biology, who knows a thing or two about being at the receiving end of economic and military colonialism. And A Planet for Rent is an incredibly powerful, haunting set of interconnected short stories of a Galaxy in which all earth has become a Colony.

The premise is simple. After watching the leaders of Earth take the planet to the brink of destruction with their ceaseless internecine conflicts, the benevolent space-faring species of the Galaxy intervene and take over. Like the “Mandate” system imposed by the Western “Great Powers” under the League of Nations, humans are kept in tutelage by “the Galactic community, into which they would be accepted one not very distant day, with the rights of full membership…” (p. 12) In the meantime, the landscape of Earth is regenerated, and the Planet transformed into a tourist destination for the well-endowed amongst the Galactic races, whether it is to embark on big game hunts, observe the local populace, or simply experience what it is like to be a different species, through entering the bodies of human criminals sentenced to the punishment of becoming “body spares” for a period.

“Body spares” is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this futuristic, inter-species colonial relationship, but the rest of it sounds rather familiar. It is. And so are the corollaries. Under the velvet glove of benevolent tutelage lies the grasping, iron hand of violent repression, cynical collaboration and futile resistance, tightly controlled emigration implemented by a brutal colonial gendarmerie, an economic embargo that suffocates any attempts at terrestrial development, and systematic brain drain to the many metropolises (“You didn’t invent the brain drain, but you perfected and institutionalized it” says an immigration applicant to his Cetian interrogators).

Yoss’ characters are human beings struggling to survive – and negotiate – their existences as colonial subjects at the bottom of the Galactic hierarchy. In a series of interconnected stories (interspersed with wry and savage interludes containing nuggets of tantalising information about the social and economic structure of the Galaxy), Yoss explores the lives of a sex worker trying to escape Earth by becoming attached to a “Grodo”, a performing artist eking out a living from Planet to Planet, an athlete dreaming of revenge by defeating a multi-species team in a game of “Voxl”, a guard at the space-port, a scientist trying to immigrate for a better life, a rebel dreaming of Galactic spaceflight, and an Earthbound girl taken under the protection of a “Colossaur”. What makes the stories of A Planet for Rent particularly compelling is that in Yoss’ world there are no heroes, no tales of organised resistance (whether triumphant or tragic), no grand conflict in the theatre of space, no sanctity or sublimation. His characters are so occupied with bettering the conditions of their existence, that they have no luxury of thinking through the deeper questions of the injustices of colonialism and the possibilities of resistance (and those who do either meet a tragic end, or disabuse themselves of such notions before things come to such a pass.)

If Planet for Rent tells the story of a colonized world, but consciously eschews a story of resistance, then what is it about? It is about the everyday interactions between the colonizers and the colonized, the exercise of power not at a grand level but in the organisation of thought, feeling and action that constitutes the lifeworld, the capturing of that nameless experience that structures an unequal relationship. This is where Yoss is a consummately skilled craftsman: his characters are of a type without losing their individuality: grafters, collaborators, pragmatists, opportunists, human; his encounters are familiar without losing their authenticity: the insufficiency of benevolent masters who nonetheless remain masters, betrayal in a world where loyalty offers no reward and has lost its meaning, the impossibility of ideals in a compromised relationship; and the clear political undertones do nothing to take away from the spinning of a jolly good yarn: Yoss is particularly masterful at that last twist of the knife that ends the story (sometimes literally), that leaves you shaken and grasping for support at the dissolving straws of hoped-for happy endings. All this is done in a wry, ironic tone, often with hilariously funny dialogue (or interior monologue) that draws the reader into laughter for that brief moment before she becomes aware of the darkness that lies beneath. In its review, The Nation has the best set of words to describe it: “riotously funny, scathing, perceptive, and yet also heart-wrenchingly compassionate.”

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Filed under Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized, Yoss

Connections: W.H. Auden and Miroslav Holub on the Dying Town as the Dying Body

“But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.”

Inside there may be growing
an abandoned room,
bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung,
a disconnected phone,
feathers settling on the floor
the encyclopaedists have moved out and
Dostoevsky never found the place,

lost in the landscape
where only surgeons
write poems.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Modernism: Second Generation, W.H. Auden

Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kis, Zbigniew Herbert

In his introduction to Danilo Kis’ A Tomb for Boris Davidovich – a collection of short stories about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarianism –  Joseph Brodsky writes:

“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”

While I am not entirely convinced about this seeming privileging of an aesthetic response to totalitarianism over a political response, the sentiment is portrayed with a particular impact in a poem that I came across today, Zbigniew Herbert’s The Power of Taste:

It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

I particularly like “chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails/ the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning/ syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive…”, for the physical sensation of the language, and for its sense of how the constriction of language is inevitably a precursor to the constriction of imaginative worlds and of empathy (the word “chains” is particularly well-placed).

I am reminded of two other poems. The slightly defamiliarising “necessary courage” recalls the fare more defamliarising “necessary murder” used by Auden in Spain, almost as a counterpoint: “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder...” Auden later disavowed this too-quick endorsement of revolutionary violence, and renounced the poem entirely. And “cartilege of conscience” brings to mind the “vertebraed with veracities” of Jorge Fernandez Granados’ Reconciliation, a poem about doubt and the end-of-the-rainbow quest for certainty. Both poems use an image of the body to capture that sensation that occupies that nameless space somewhere between firmness and rigidity.

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Filed under Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

“Such a meaningless thing as the judgment of history…”: Ahmadou Kourouma’s ‘Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote’

“You are now considered to be the breakwater on which founder the waves of international communism surging towards Africa. The media and public opinion in the Free World no longer have the right to criticize you. One does not demoralize a solder fighting at the front by criticizing the way he handles his rifle.”

There is a point in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote when the first elected President of the newly-independent Republique du Golfe is attempting to resist the coup that will soon cost him his position and his life. If he is killed, he says to his advisers, “it would mean that everything I have learned is sham, lies, that all my spiritual leaders have lied to me. It would mean that Africa is a sham, a lie; that talismans and sacrifices are worthless. It is unthinkable, impossible. It cannot be true.” There is something particularly poignant about “it would mean that Africa is a sham” at the moment of the strangulation of a fledgeling African democracy, a collateral casualty in Cold War politics, and a moment that occurs and recurs in the actual late-20th century history of the continent. If Africa, at that point, symbolises a long history of colonialism, resistance, and (ultimately) liberation, then the guns and soldiers that surround the Presidential Palace represent the “sham” that liberation ultimately turns out to be.

Waiting for the Wild Beasts is a story of that sham. It is narrated over six nights – “six vigils” – by Bingo, a griot and his “responder”, Tiecoura, in the presence of Koyaga, ‘President-Dictator’ of the Republique du Golfe, his ‘Minister of Orientation’, and seven most celebrated hunters of the Republic. Tiecoura, like the court jesters of the medieval European kings, “can do as he wishes, everything is permitted him, and nothing that he does goes unpardoned.” Through the course of the six vigils, then, the griot and his responder (with various interjections by the Minister) recount the personal history of Koyaga in the form of a donsomana (a performed epic) which, inevitably, becomes the history of the Republique du Golfe, and a searing indictment both of colonialism and of the betrayal of the post-colonial promise.

In his essay on Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry highlights the “two voices” of the Roman epic: the dominant register, which celebrates conquest and imperium, linking Aeneas to Augustus, but also a counterpoint, a submerged register that questions and undermines that narrative. In Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, there are not two, but three voices that complicate the narrative. The dominant register is the griot’s donsomana, which is essentially a praise-song. Its form requires vaulting hyperbole and exaggeration, (deliberately) performed to such an extent that it overleaps itself and falls upon the side of disbelief. Koyaga is made out to be a man with superhuman powers, protected by the magic of his mother and a seer; his exploits while serving in the French army in Indochina, his violently successful ascent to the Presidency of the Republique du Golfe, and his surviving multiple assassination attempts, are all attributed to magic. The coup that ends with the murder of the elected President Santos is depicted as a clash between two powerful shamans, hurling magic at each other. But even as these stories are told, the griot also provides his audience the other, more prosaic explanations (political intrigue, betrayal, outright violence, chance), while ostensibly debunking them as the invention of bitter and jealous political opponents. And even beyond these two voices contained within the donsomana, Tiecoura takes advantage of the latitude offered him to – occasionally – disrupt the praise-song by speaking some blunt home-truths to power:

Koyaga, you have many faults, grave faults. You were, you are as tyrannous as a savage beast, as untruthful as an echo, as brutal as a lightning strike, as murderous as a lycaon, as emasculating as a castrator, as populist as a griot, as corrupt as a louse, as libidinous as a pair of ducks. You are… You are… You have many other faults which if one were to try to expound them all, catalogue each one at a stroke, it would surely tear one’s mouth at the corners. So specifies the responder, redoubling his jeers, which draw a good-natured smile from him they appear to insult.”

These three registers mingle, alternate and disrupt each other, never quite allowing the reader to settle. What emerges from them is a highly effective – and unsparing – critique of mid-20th century African history. Like Ngugi wa Thiong’o in The Wizard of the Crow (which was written ten years after Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote), Kourouma is painfully aware of the ‘Free World’s’ Cold War-induced complicity in creating and propping up African dictatorships:

De Gaulle succeeded in granting independence without decolonizing. He succeeded in this by inventing and supporting presidents of republics who referred to themselves as fathers of the nation, architects of the independence of their countries, when in fact they had done nothing to win independence for their republics and were not the real masters, the true leaders of their peoples.”

This is a familiar theme, described eloquently by Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country. Recounting the manner in which the elections leading up to the independence of Nigeria were rigged by the outgoing British colonialists, Achebe writes that “In a sense, Nigerian independence came with a British governor general in command, and, one might say, popular faith in genuine democracy was compromised from birth.”

And yet, Kourouma is also keenly aware of the risks in letting this origin story become determinative of the future, and of reducing causality to a linear sequence in a manner that absolves the leaders of post-colonial African nations from the burdens of moral judgment. This comes through with particular brilliance in the griot‘s account of Koyaga’s visit to four other African dictators, who have devised various stratagems for staying in power. In particular, this is how one of them deals with an alleged communist plot against his government:

“Remembering the precepts of the Qur’an, the Emperor ordered the regiment to beat them to death before cutting off their hands, as the Belgians had routinely done in Congo, and their ears, as the French had done in Oubangui-Chari…”

In one sentence, the griot locates the origins of this particularly brutal kind of political violence in colonialism, while making it clear that the moral culpability of the doer is in no way mitigated by this history. Not only that, there is also an equally keen awareness of how that history is invoked in discourse to at least attempt to hide, or distract from, that moral culpability. While maintaining a brutally repressive regime, Koyaga memorialises the day of his father’s death as “the Feast of the Victims of Colonialism“, a moment of heavy irony where historical trauma is pressed into service for propping up a social order that exhibits many of the same tendencies that it claims to repudiate.

There is a very similar moment in The Wizard of the Crow, where a regime member’s response to external criticism is to say “Racists… putting as much hatred as he could into his voice”. The transition from reckoning with colonialism and racism for emancipatory purposes to a veil for hiding oppression is brutal and unforgiving, made all the more starker by the wry, self-aware, bleakly humorous tone that characterises both Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and The Wizard of the Crow.

The story of the Republique du Golfe is a thinly-fictionalised history of post-Independence Togo, although Togo is never mentioned. And yet, lest the fiction appear too remote, from time to time Kourouma drops in real countries and real people, as if just to remind us that this is real, this actually happened. French political interference, American and British Cold War machinations, Gaddafi and Idi Amin’s ‘African solidarity’, all play walk-on roles, and even the IMF’s notorious ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’ enter an appearance, making it all too clear that despite its allegorical style, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is anything but an allegory. It is the true story of an imagined future that turned out to be – in one of the many acute proverbs that line the tale –  “as untruthful as an echo.”

 

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Filed under African Writing, Ahmadou Kourouma, Ivory Coast

Round-Up: Inoue, Barnes, Roberts, Liu

 

Yasushi Inoue’s The Hunting Gun is my first foray into Japanese literature. A novella, The Hunting Gun uses a narrative device that I recently came across in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer: the same set of contemporaneous events is described by three individuals, one after the other. Not only are there three different perspectives, three different sets of facts, but with each successive (re)telling, the story unfolds a little bit more, casting fresh (even contrary) light upon the previous narration. In The Hunting Gun, it is three letters written by three women to a man, triggered by a tragic death. What is most striking about The Hunting Gun is – like the Japanese art of bonsai – its sense of containment. In the three letters, you have betrayal, love, heartbreak, loss – themes that threaten to bubble up and spill over beyond the pages, but which always – somehow – remain there, within bounds. An instance:

“I knew love was like a clear stream that sparkled beautifully in the sun, and when the wind blew any number of soft ripples skittered across its surface, and its banks were gently held by the plants and trees and flowers, and it kept singing its pure music, always, as it grew wider and wider – that’s what love was to me. How could I have imagined a love that stretched out secretly, like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who knew where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?” 

Or:

“As you cooled, with the speed of a red-hot piece of iron plunged into water, I matched your coolness; and as I grew cold, you drew circles around me in your plummeting frigidity, until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world, in a household so cold one feels ice on one’s eyelashes.

There is a sense of balance, an almost preternatural poise in this language, where the most powerful emotions are distilled into language, but never reduced. To use Inoue’s own words, “transformed into [something] as limpid as water…“, and retaining the sense of “a blaze of flowers in the otherwise muted room.”

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time left me rather conflicted. On the one hand, Barnes’ exquisitely crafted sentences, his wisdom and his insights, and his ability to crystallise those insights into limpid prose. The Noise of Time is a fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous 20th-Century Soviet composer, controversial because of his alleged compromises and complicity with the Stalinist regime. Barnes’ subject, then, compels him to explore some of those fundamental questions about the human condition, and especially, the human condition in the 20th century: the meaning of artistic and moral integrity, how totalitarianism can make the heart betray itself, and the ethical contortions compelled by tyranny. There are individual moments – captured, as ever, in perfectly complete sentences, which distil a thought just so – that are breathtaking. For instance: “we expect too much of the future – hoping that it will quarrel with the present…“; “Theories were clean and convincing and comprehensible. Life was messy and full of nonsense...”; “... not shattering, because that implied a single great crisis. Rather, what happened to human illusions was that they crumbled, they withered away. It was a long and wearisome process, like a toothache reaching far into the soul…”; “The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old.

As a novel, however, The Noise of Time is acutely disappointing. The crushing of the individual under the ostensibly-communist, actually-totalitarian post-1930s Soviet (and post-1950s Eastern European) regimes has been a heavily written subject, from numerous angles. Kundera has written about the regimes’ attempts to control art and music (The Joke), Danilo Kis has written about individual moral degradation (A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), Koestler has written about the horrors of surveillance and interrogation (Darkness at Noon), and there are many more. Reading The Noise of Time, one feels that this is ground that has been covered many times over, and by writers who had access to a more unmediated set of experiences than Barnes.

This issue might have been mitigated had Shostakovich’s character been at the front and centre of the novel. However, Shostakovich himself is painted in generic colours, a placeholder for the ordinary individual whose none-too strong character and none-too courageous heart wilts underneath Stalinism. Unlike Colm Toibin’s Henry James in The Master, for instance, who is utterly unique, Barnes’ Shostakovich is almost an allegory.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself  combines science fiction, Kantian “categories”, time travel, and a bewildering variety of stylistic variations (including one very successful one after James Joyce) in a heady mixture. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Roberts’ premise – that time and space are categories that structure and mediate our perceptions of the world, but can also be transcended – is a remarkably complex and difficult one to pull of in an actual science fiction novel, but he manages it in a quite virtuoso manner. The only downside to that is, that at times, the book is a little… difficult!

In a similar vein, Cixxin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem takes another fairly complex concept (i.e., the three-body problem!), and constructs an absolutely thrilling science fiction novel out of it. Friends have been recommending Liu to me for a couple of years now – and it was certainly worth all the hype. A novel about first contact (but not quite), The Three-Body Problem reads like old-school SF – James Blish’s Cities in Flight comes immediately to mind –  in its sense of wonder, of space, of the most haunting of questions; but it simultaneously avoids the blunders of old-school SF (the white-male-coloniser-centric worldview – it’s set in China, for a start, and has at least two female protagonists).

 

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Filed under Adam Roberts, Cixxin Liu, Inoue, Japan, Julian Barnes

Connections: Proust and Wilde

From the Loose Signatures blog:

“The visits that Bergotte paid us were a few years too late for me now, because I didn’t like him as much any more—which doesn’t contradict the fact that his reputation had grown. An oeuvre is rarely completely victorious and comprehended without another writer’s work, perhaps still obscure, beginning to replace the cult that has almost finished coming to the fore with a new one (at least among a few more hard-to-please minds). In the books of Bergotte that I re-read most often, his sentences were as clear before my eyes as my own ideas, the furniture in my room, and the cars in the street. All things were comfortably obvious—even if not exactly as you had always seen them, at least as you were used to seeing them at the present time. But a new writer had started publishing works where the relationships between things were so different from those that bound things together for me that I could barely understand anything he wrote. For example, he said, “The watering hoses admired the lovely upkeep of the highways” (and that was easy; I slid down the length of those highways) “which left every five minutes from Briand and from Claudel.” I didn’t understand any more, since I’d expected the name of a city, but instead it gave me the name of a person. I didn’t just think that the sentence was poorly made; I thought that I wasn’t strong and quick enough to go all the way to its end. I picked up my spirits and clambered on hands and feet to get to a place where I could see the new relations between things. Each time I got a little closer to the midpoint of the sentence, I fell back down, like the slowest soldier in a regiment during the “portico” exercise. I admired the new writer no less than the clumsy kid who gets a zero in gym class admires a more dexterous child. From then on, I admired Bergotte less; his limpidity now seemed to come from inadequacy. There had once been a time when people recognized things when Fromentin painted them, but not when Renoir did.

Today, people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great painter of the nineteenth century.* But in saying so, they forget Time, and that it took a lot of it—well into the twentieth century—for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To successfully be recognized as such, the original painter or artist must set forth like opticians. The treatment of their painting, their prose, isn’t always pleasant. When finished, the practitioner tells us: “Now look.” And behold—the world (which was not created just once, but as often as a truly original artist appears) looks entirely different to us from the old one, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those of the past, since they are Renoirs—those same Renoirs in which we long ago refused to see any women at all. The cars are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky. We feel like we are walking in a forest like the one which on the first day seemed to us like everything excepta forest—like a tapestry with a number of nuances that nevertheless lacks just those nuances that a forest should have. That is the universe, new and perishable, which has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer who is truly original.”

  • Proust, The Guermantes Way, part 2, chapter 1

—-

“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into
existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pissaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised. Of course, I am quite ready to admit that Life very often commits the same error. She produces her false Renes and her sham Vautrins, just as Nature gives us, on one day a doubtful Cuyp, and on another a more than questionable Rousseau. Still, Nature irritates one more when she does things of that kind. It seems so stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary. A false Vautrin might be delightful. A doubtful Cuyp is unbearable. However, I don’t want to be too hard on Nature. I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also. That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilised man. But have I proved my theory to your satisfaction?”

 

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Filed under France, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde

‘Everything in her, was the result of the chaos of an occasion’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Story of a New Name’

“When she closed the door behind her and, as if she were inside a white cloud of steam that made her invisible, took the metro to Campi Flegrei, Lila had the impression that she had left a soft space, inhabited by forms without definition, and was finally heading toward a structure that was capable of containing her fully, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking.”

The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, explodes into life like a meteor shower. It begins at Lila’s wedding, where it is already clear to Elena that her childhood friend’s decision to marry the up-and-coming neighbourhood grocer Stefano is a huge mistake, and one that will have tragic consequences. Feverishly moving between nihilism (“if nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately…”) and envy (“I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing…”), the marriage generates storm-clouds of conflicting emotions within her, which clash and produce the lightning-flash of her own hesitant, half-suppressed sexual desires. These, at last, find an outlet in her boyfriend, Antonio:

“We kissed without stopping, behind a tree, in the doorway of a building, along dark alleys. We took a bus, then another, and reached the station. We went towards the ponds on foot, still kissing each other on the nearly deserted street that skirted the railroad tracks… I wanted desire to find a violent satisfaction, capable of shattering that whole day… I said nothing else. I embraced him, I clasped him to me with all my strength. I would have liked to be caressed and kissed over every inch of my body, I felt the need to be rubbed, bitten, I wanted my breath to fail… My heart began to beat hard, I was afraid of the place, of myself, of the craving that possessed me to obliterate from my manners and from my voice the sense of alienation that I had discovered a few hours earlier… … yearning and anguished and guilty…”

With this, the stage is set. The Story of a New Name, which takes up the adventures of Elena and Lila, now sixteen years old, and their Neopolitan neighbourhood, is a story of sexual and emotional awakening, of the personal and the political coming together with an intimate violence, and – in the words of Charles Segal – of “the intransigence of reality before the plasticity of language” (and, we may add, the plasticity of desire). In the first book, My Brilliant Friend, we had seen the first hints of how the world impinges upon imagination, upon possibilities, and most of all, upon women’s freedom to fashion their own lives. In The Story of a New Name, the protagonists are older, their dreams more real and their desires more formed, and so they find reality to be even more implacably intransigent. “Words”, Elena tells herself at one point, “with them you can do and undo as you please.” But even words must fail before the “gluelike consistency” of time, the substance of which, now that the protagonists are seventeen, “no longer seemed fluid… but… churned around us like a yellow cream in a confectioner’s machine.”

Marriage – even a mistaken, bad marriage – destroys the possibilities of autonomy: “They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?” Class forestalls the possibilities of love requited: “… the girl who came to meet Nino… was superior to us, just as she was, unwittingly. And this was unendurable.” Gender precludes the possibilities of academic excellence. To the coming-of-age heart, it is all quite unendurable:

“And then there was the lazy sea, the leaden sun that bore down on the gulf and the city, stray fantasies, desires, the ever-present wish to undo the order of the lines – and, with it, every order that required an effort, a wait for fulfillment yet to come – and yield, instead, to what was within reach, immediately gained, the crude life of the creatures of the sky, the earth, and the sea.”

But The Story of a New Name is not about a quiet surrender to the suffocating embrace of time and the world. There is a scene in which Lila and Elena are refashioning the display at the front of her family’s shoe shop window, to the utter chagrin of Lila’s brother and father. As they work together:

“We suspended time, we isolated space, there remained only the play of glue, scissors, paper, paint: the play of shared creation.”

And this, in a sentence, could be what The Story of a New Name is all about. Moments when time is suspended, space isolated, where “the play of… creation” becomes a question of authenticity, of authorship in a constraining world. These moments take different forms: a doomed extra-marital affair (or many), an undesired-yet-desired sexual encounter, an against-the-odds university education, and so on. They are moments of rebellion, of self-actualisation, and most of all, moments when women act in a world that denies them the very possibility of action.

Yet this is not to suggest that The Story of a New Name glorifies these acts of rebellion. More often than not, there is more ugliness than glory, more grit and slime than the music of the spheres, more breaking (frantumaglia) than making whole. This is not surprising. Ferrante’s material is the material of everyday life, her characters are excruciatingly, agonisingly, infuriatingly, human (and therefore us, and therefore, impossible to love). Yet even as she deals with the every day, Ferrante never drags us down to the level of a soap-opera. She manages to avoid the perils of both glorification and banality, and, instead – to borrow a phrase from the phenomenologists – takes us “to the things themselves“. In her writing, our submerged thoughts, our buried dreams and desires, the darkness that we keep secret even from ourselves, takes on flesh, shape, contours, reality. Hannah Arendt once wrote about Heidegger, that “he worked his way down to the roots of things, but rather than hauling them into the light, he left them embedded, merely opening up exploratory roots around them.” That is a perfect description of Ferrante.

In fact, the point is best explained by resorting – as ever – to Ferrante’s own language. Early in the book, while reading novels lent to her by her school Professor, Elena feels that “they presented intense lives, profound conversations, a phantom reality more appealing then my real life.” This is not Ferrante. At a later point, suffering from the agony of unrequited love, Elena “call[s]  on poems and novels as tranquilizers. Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself.” This is not Ferrante either. Neither a phantom reality, nor a tranquiliser. Simply, the limits of what can be articulated.

Politics, as always, is a subtle yet unmistakable presence. At one point, Elena sees Stefano as cheerful: “he began to speak of Lila with the pride of someone possessing a rare object whose ownership confers great prestige… yet Lila, in his words, was no longer a person who couldn’t be controlled but a sort of precious fluid stored in a container that belonged to him.”  And then there’s Elena’s ambiguous, unequal relationship with Nino Sarratore:

“Have you read Federico Chabod? It was the only moment when Nino seemed to be annoyed. I realized that he didn’t know who Chabod was and from that I got an electrifying sensation of fullness. I began to summarise the little I had learned, but I quickly realized that to know, to compulsively display what he knew, was his point of strength and at the same time his weakness. He felt strong if he took the lead and weak if he lacked words. He darkened, in fact he stopped me almost immediately. He sidetracked the conversation, he started talking about the Regions, about how urgent it was to get them approved, about autonomy and decentralization, about economic planning on a regional basis, all things I had never heard a word about. No Chabod, then: I had left him the field… What were we doing? A discussion? Practicing for future confrontations with people who had learned to use words as we had? An exchange of signals to prove to ourselves that such words were the basis of a long and fruitful friendship? A cultivated screen for sexual desire? … But I also understood that there was no comparison with the exchanges I had had with Lila years earlier, which ignited my brain, and in the course of which we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges. With Nino it was different. I felt that I had to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance, and the few things I knew and he didn’t.”

There is, I feel, more in there about gender, about patriarchy, and about structural privilege, than in a month of graduate school seminars. Or consider Elena’s first, painful introduction to class, at a party organised by her professor:

“And Nino, politely disagreeing with the professor, contradicted Armando, contradicted Carlo. I listened spellbound. Their words were buds that blossomed in my mind into more or less familiar flowers, and then I flared up, mimicking participation; or they manifested forms unknown to me, and I retreated, to hide my ignorance.” 

Unlike Nino, who “was profound in confronting the great problems of the world as he was superficial in the feelings of love“, Ferrante is equally adept at both.

Previously, while reviewing My Brilliant Friend, I had remarked upon Ferrante’s felicity with the perfect phrase, the almost achingly perfect choice of words, as though for her, language is no barrier to expression, but augments it. The Story of a New Name is simply more of the same. Whether it is describing the ambiguity of friendship and parting (“I had wished to diminish her in order not to feel her loss…”), the inexpressible pains of love (“Maybe he’s hurting himself inside, because the words, shouted in his throat like that, in his chest, but without exploding in the air, are like bits of sharp iron piercing his lungs and his pharynx…”), insecurity (“… as if the pure and simple fact that he loved me were the public sanctioning of my talents…”),  the ending of relationships (“… there are people who leave and people who know how to be left…”), or simply, pure rage against the constraints of the world (“At times she was overwhelmed by a mania to express herself with no mediation…”), after Ferrante has written it, you wonder how it could ever have been expressed differently.

After finishing The Story of a New Name, you take a deep, shuddering breath. You put the book down, and you go out for a walk, into a world that feels – as Ferrante writes – “… formed, reformed, deformed.” But a world that you recognise better than you did before you began the book.

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