“Daybreak came feebly, ash-grey…”: Ismail Kadare, ‘The Fall of the City of Stone’

1943. With Italy signing the Act of Capitulation to Germany, and pulling out of occupied Albania, the tanks of the Third Reich roll into the stone city of Gjirokaster. On the way, the Nazi commander is shot at in an ambush. Hostages are taken, and retribution is expected to be swift and ruthless. But by the time the next morning dawns, the commander has met Doctor Gurameto,  his dearest college friend, dined at his house, ordered all the hostages to be released, and left the city with his troops. And the reverberations from that fateful day and night will haunt the city for years to come.

This is the eighth Kadare novel that I’ve read, and certainly the most curious one. By now, there is something I’ve come to expect from him: the setting is either part-historical, part-mythical (The Palace of Dreams, The Three-Arched Bridge, The Pyramid, The Siege), or a very thinly fictionalised Albania (The File on H, Broken April); the story is, in some way, a meditation on the interconnections between poetry, myth, and the construction of national memory; and the writing is vividly imagistic, almost dream-like at times.

The Fall of the Stone City confounded all these expectations, not least because as I progressed through the book, I felt as if I was reading two or three different writers. In the opening scene, just as the German tanks are preparing to destroy Gjirokaster, someone waves the white flag of surrender from a window. The man (or woman) is never found, but the very idea of surrender is such an anathema to the city, that it invents a convenient myth to shield itself from its own, unsparing gaze:

“The explanation was very simple: no search would ever discover the person or ghost who had raised the flag of surrender. The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar, and blown it back and forth in front of the eyes of the Germans. The inhabitants of the city could finally be reassured that neither cowardice nor, worse, attempted treason had set this flag fluttering. Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.”

This reminded me strongly of the opening scene in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where Kundera recounts the anecdote of the photograph. In 1948, there is a photograph taken of the Czech Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, standing on a balcony alongside foreign minister Vladimir Clementis, who has just taken off his hat and placed it on the Prime Minister’s head, to protect him from the cold wind. When Clementis is purged and executed in 1952, the State propaganda also “erases” from the photograph – all that remains of him is his hat on Gottwald’s head. Kundera uses this story as an illustration of forgetting, the central theme of his book.

The story of the white flag is also a story of forgetting, or – what comes to the same thing – the story of overwriting and erasure, and the creation of a new, perfect narrative that helps us forget the old, flawed one. And in both cases, the overwriting can never be complete. Just as the hat remains on Gottwald’s head, the white flag remains in Gijorkaster’s narrative of its surrender. Whatever stories we tell ourselves, something will always escape through the cracks.

Thinking of Kundera in a novel that was set in World War II seemed a little dissonant at first – until, reading on, I realised that the second half of the book is a savage, satirical critique of post-WW II Eastern European communism, placing it firmly in the Kundera tradition. Before that, however, is the description of the fateful dinner at Doctor Guremato’s house. Here, there were strong echoes of Sandor Marai’s Embers: two old friends dine together unexpectedly after many years, in an atmosphere tinged with nostalgia, melancholy and bitterness, with unanswered questions and no possibility of closure; with a dim grasping towards something already lost, whether it is personal loss, or national loss. In Kadare, of course, the stakes are much higher – one man is trying to convince the other not to kill a hundred human beings:

“Your country fired on me.”

“I answer for my own house, not the state.”

“It comes to the same.”

“It doesn’t come to the same. I’m not Albania, just as you’re not Germany, Fritz. We’re something else.” 

In another curious reminder of Kundera, this time of The Joke, these lines come back to haunt Doctor Guremato many years later, under the communists. I’m not Albania. We’re something else. This denial of community and nation is used to put Doctor Guremato on trial for crimes against the regime, as evidence of his participation in a vast Jewish conspiracy designed to topple communism. Under communism, of course, the merging of individual and community reaches its apotheosis; again, in lines strikingly reminiscent of Kundera, in particular, the eviscerating humour of Life is Elsewhere, Kadare’s narrator remarks at one point:

“… a senior cultural official complained that people were still singing songs of what might be called a private nature…” 

Before this comes to pass, however, we’re treated to a rather astonishing digression that might be right out of Swift or Rabelais: a few chapters on the “persecution of the city’s ladies.” There is a sudden transition from what, until now, has been a believable historical story, to that of a Quixotic allegorical world. The narrative breaks down, the tone changes, there is sudden disorientation. I must confess, this part of the novel passed me by entirely.

Just as abruptly as it begins, the playful surreality ends, and we’re back to reality – the new reality of postwar communist-ruled Albania. But this is no longer the world through Kundera’s eyes. It has become the much darker, grimmer world of Arthur Koestler and Danilo Kis: the world of interrogators and torture chambers, show trials and the savage twisting of narratives upon the torturer’s wheel. Doctor Guremato finds himself under the scanner because of his role on the day the Germans came to Gijorkaster; and as in Koestler and Kis, the goal of the interrogation is not to discover the “truth” (every last vestige of fact has already been extracted through torture and surveillance of others), but to force a confession and a repentance that strengthens the regime.

There is an inevitability about the ending. But what sets apart The Fall of the Stone City from the uncompromising bleakness of Darkness at Noon and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is that even here, Kadare is unable (or unwilling) to entirely drop his lyrical style, a style most unsuited to the events that he is describing:

“But then another morning would dawn, ashen and exhausted, to confirm the view that time is the last thing in this world that is capable of renewal.”

And:

“At first it was hard to find anything to accuse them of but soon it became easy enough. Just as the world was swept with wind and rain, so it was burdened with guilt. A share could be allotted to the doctors with plenty left over for others.”

When I first came upon these sentences, I paused, halted, and then read them over, twice, thrice, even four times. And perversely, it is the beauty of the prose that grips you in a way that forces your mind off the darkness of its subject matter.

As I said in the beginning, this is a curious book. I put it down with a sense of incompleteness; there seemed to be a smorgasbord of styles, themes and ideas jostling for space, not always harmoniously. Perhaps this makes this a modernist novel par excellence. But for me, apart from the patches of vintage Kadare, passages that exude a rare, elusive beauty, the novel qua novel disappointed. For the first time.

 

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“… … the question remained unanswered, suspended between them in the emptiness.”: Latifa al-Zayyat’s ‘The Open Door’

“Everyone was in tune with everyone else, just as if we were members of a society and knew and agreed on its tiniest regulations, or the gears of a clock moving at exactly the same pace and in the same direction, all the time, one direction that everyone knows, clear, logical, in sequence.”

There is a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (reviewed here), that perhaps best illustrates his unique approach towards social realism through the novel. Encouraged by her children, the progatonist, Amina, has overcome a lifetime of conditioning in patriarchal households (first of her father, and then of her husband) to leave her home by herself, and venture out into the world – all the way to a sufi shrine at the other end of the street. Mahfouz describes the moment when she is poised at the threshold of a new world with its newly broken boundaries:

She stopped for a moment before plunging into the alley. She turned to look at her latticed balcony. She could make out the shadows of her two daughters behind one panel. Another panel was raised to reveal the smiling faces of Fahmy and Yasin.”

 The two daughters behind one, closed panel, only visible as shadows. The two sons behind the other, raised and open to the world, smiling. In this way, without saying anything, Mahfouz paints a powerful picture of the repressed and patriarchal society – more powerful than words.

But if Mahfouz’s approach is the scalpel, leaving its impact by subtle suggestion and lingering allusions, Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, set in Cairo during more or less the same period as Palace Walk (1946 – 1956, before and leading up to Nasser’s revolution and the nationalisation of the Canal), is a blunt hammer, driving home its point with repeated, unambiguous force.

Like Palace WalkThe Open Door is a book about a family, navigating their way through the tumultuous political backdrop in 1950s Egypt. It tells the story of Layla, a girl growing up in a middle-class Cairo household, along with a galaxy of sometimes recognisable characters: a conservative father, a softer (repressed) mother, a brother (Mahmud) who is a fiery political activist, a more circumspect cousin (Isam) who falls in love with her, and cousin (Gamila) with an ever-calculating mother determined to marry her upwards, and a pose of friends and relatives. As with Mahfouz’s novel, the family is faced with rapidly changing times, a world in which traditions are being questioned as never before, where iconoclasm is met with an even fiercer backlash, and where the clarion call – “Obey the fundamentals, and life will have no suffering” – can no longer hold the imagination as it once did.

But there the similarities end. Palace Walk is polyvocal, often detached account, relying upon detail in description, and sharp allusions for its impact. The Open Door, on the other hand, is like an autobiography in third person – an autobiography of the protagonist Layla, as she goes through school and university, falls in love and has her heart broken, rebels and capitulates, all the way up to the brink of a disastrous, imposed marriage – all the while in the backdrop of Egypt’s political turmoil – the anti-imperialist struggles against the British, the protest marches, Nasser’s revolution, and the three-pronged attack after the nationalisation of the Canal. I say “third-person autobiography” because of a substantial amount of interior dialogue: we see the world through Layla’s eyes – through the eyes of a women at the threshold of adulthood, whose view of the world is shaped before our eyes by events, whose understanding of injustice is felt rather than reasoned, whose anger is unconstrained by dissimulation, and above all, who is free with her thoughts.

The risk with such an approach to the novel is, of course, the risk of descending into political polemic, and/or caricaturing your characters. Indeed, there are moments when Layla’s judgements seem too pat, and the book’s political message too divorced from the story that it is telling. When, for instance, her brother, Mahmud, fails to replicate his political liberalism from the protest march in his conduct towards his own sister within the home, her thoughts flow:

“He knew what was wrong, what was right, she understood that – but he knew it on paper. Yes, on paper.”

One might think that this is unnecessary, and too intense a belabouring of a point already made. A couple of reviews that I read criticised The Open Door for being too blatantly allegorical, for writing Layla as if she is the embodiment and symbolisation of Egypt on the cusp of Revolution.

I think, though, that the criticisms are unfounded. There are two reasons why The Open Door is saved from the mediocrity of the kitsch “political art” that Milan Kundera ridicules in his novels. The first is al-Zayyat’s extraordinary sensitivity towards the uncertain glories and perilous uncertainties of youth. Layla’s longing for stability after a fiery relationship crashes and burns is described in the following, wonderful way:

“For that was a space where one lived in perpetual fever. You never knew exactly where you stood; you saw things not as they really were; you felt a strength you did not really possess, a beauty you could not really claim, and a happiness bigger than one person could acquire. For the threat that connected one to the sky was fragile; it might break suddenly, and you would tumble to earth and shatter.”

Layla’s falling in love, being broken, and healing, are portrayed with an empathy and an understanding that would resonate with every reader, and make it difficult not to be passionately rooting for her by the end of the story. Her revolt and her suffocation are perhaps dated, but never alien. Her dreams are the dreams we have all dreamt, and her disillusionment is painfully familiar. Along with all the other characters, but more than them, she feels alive.

The second is an equal sensitivity towards image and metaphor. Whenever the interior monologue runs the risk of becoming too overtly political or dreary, al-Zayyat punctuates it with delicate, almost gossamer imagery. She describes the first, hesitant sliver of feeling between Layla and Isam in this manner:

“The glimmer ran from her lips, from her face and body to Isam; it settled in the space between then, a gaze that remained incomplete, a touch that was not quite there, sentences that had no periods. The light cocooned them, a single image, apart form all around them.”

And the domineering nature of al-Ramzi, the University teacher who insidiously attempts to bend Layla to his will, paving the ground for a future engagement and a suffocating marriage:

“He was a sculptor playing his chisel, now delicately, now almost violently, and always with studied care. Here a light touch, here a deep furrow, here a chunk that must be dislodged entirely, and here a segment that required only refining and polishing. The lineaments of the statue emerged gradually, notch after notch, dent by dent, cut away by the artist’s will.” 

The Open Door has been called the first feminist Arab novel. It is an easy – and true – characterisation. The protagonist is a woman, the dominant theme is (as was said about Llosa) the “cartography of power, and the individual’s resistance” against patriarchy. But I think it is much more than that: it is a delightful exploration of the tragedy of being young in a society that is like a chrysalis: where an alternative future can be imagined, where it is on the cusp of coming into being, and yet is farther away than eternity.

The Open Door is available from the website of the publishers here.

And from Amazon, here.

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Filed under Egypt, Latifa al-Zayyat, Middle-Eastern Writing

“… in squalid and ferocious geometry”: Italo Calvino, ‘The Road to San Giovanni’

“What had the cinema meant to me in this context? I suppose: distance. It satisfied a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

Reading Italo Calvino is like trying to grasp a fistful of clouds and mist. His words, phrases, sentences arrange themselves into constellations that are suggestive of familiar experiences, when seen from a far distance; but their suggestiveness depends upon suspending the concrete ways in which we relate to the world, and embarking upon a wild leap of imagination. For me, this leap is possible only for momentary instances, that split second in which you’re suspended in mid-air, before gravity grounds you again. This is why I think of his writing as clouds and mist – in its distance-yet-nearness, its affinity to touch, yet resistance to being grasped and held, and its momentariness.

The Road to San Giovanni is a fascinating collection of five essays, because it begins with Calvino’s self-reflective, autobiographical journey, which gives us a glimpse of how his mind came to transmute the concrete into cloud and mist – and then demonstrates that mind at work (without quite losing that critical distance to fiction). The first two essays – The Road to San Giovanni and A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography – are in the first category, before a gradual, almost imperceptible shift from reflections upon method to the method itself, until in the last essay – Calvino’s musings upon his aesthetic – style an content have become almost as blurred as they are in his fiction.

In the opening, eponymous essay – The Road to San Giovanni – Calvino recalls accompanying his father on the morning walk from their house to their farm at San Giovanni. Calvino draws a vivid picture of his father’s earthiness – his love of plants, his deep knowledge of their taxonomy, his daily proximity to the ‘natural’ world – before sharply setting it against his own, contrarian slowly-forming consciousness:

“To my father’s mind, words must serve as confirmations of things, and as signs of possession; to mine they were foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed. My father’s vocabulary welled outward into the interminable catalogue of the genuses, species and varieties of the vegetable world – every name was a distinction plucked from the dense compactness of the forest in the belief that one had thus enlarged man’s dominion – and into technical terminology, where the exactness of the word goes hand in hand with the studied exactness of the operation… I could recognize not a single plant or bird. The world of things was mute for me. The words that flowed and flowed inside my head weren’t anchored to objects but to emotions, fantasies, forebodings. And all it took was for a scrap of newspaper to find its way beneath my feet and I would be engrossed in soaking up the writing on it, mutilated and unmentionable – names of theatres, actresses, vanities – and already my mind would be racing off, the sequence of images would go on for hours and hours as I walked silently behind my father.”

This idea – that words do not describe (or, for that matter, construct) reality, but are “foretastes of things bearely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed“, is (I think) at the heart of all Calvino’s writing. Think of The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where allegory is piled upon allegory, a set of worlds imagined and connected through a structure of overlapping – yet chaotically arranged – tarot cards. Or think of Invisible Cities, invisible only to sensory perception, but cities that we have all imagined, in fragments and in parts. Nietzsche described words as rainbow bridges (rainbows — presenting the illusion of a pot of gold at their ever-receding end, much like words hold out the illusory promise of conclusion and possession upon their mastery?) – and truly, in reading Calvino, I often feel as though I’m walking on a rainbow-bridge, with the only thing holding me up are the fragile and ambiguous strands of imagination.

The concrete is a source of disenchantment. So Calvino describes the neat symmetry of farmland as a “squalid and ferocious geometry.” In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes about how the Greeks, with their passion for symmetry, balance and geometry, got their aesthetics hopelessly wrong. Calvino, like Kerouac, rebels against this sense of conclusion, of finality, and of control – although in a very different way.

It is not, however, that Calvino is entirely convinced of his way. In The Road to San Giovanni, he describes his dissociation with his father’s way of life as  “the loss that I inflicted on myself, the thousands of losses we inflict on ourselves and for which there is no making amends.” But it would seem to be a necessary – if tragic – loss, because, as he writes in A Cinema Goer’s Autobiography, we all need to find something that allows us to relate to the world in a way that gives it fullness, necessity and coherence – and this, in a way that he describes as:

“… a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

“Abstract, yet concrete too” may sound like a strange paradox, but for me, the paradox dissolves when I think – again – of his writing as clouds and mist, or as a constellation: concrete in the sense of a part of our world, embedded in the here and the now of sensory perception, but abstract in the sense of not being completed by it. Perhaps this is best exemplified in Memories of a Battle, where Calvino describes (I use the word “describes” in its loosest sense) a battle that he participated in on the side of the Partisans during World War II. In a short essay, Calvino invokes seven different images and metaphors to “describe” memory, each time hinting at its incompleteness. Memories are “sandgrains… in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought.” They are “lurking like eels in the pools of the mind“, needing to be stirred so that they can rise to the surface. They constitute the “trail… that crumble[s] under pressure“, like their trail towards the besieged village on the night of battle. They are uncertain, like the “uncertainty of the light and the season and what was to follow.” They are buried “under the sedimentary crust of hindsight.” They are at a valley bottom, and Calvino fears that “as soon as memory forms it immediately takes on the wrong light, mannered, sentimental as war and youth always are, becomes a piece of narrative written in the style of the time, which can’t tell us how things really were but only how we thought we saw them, thought we said them.” And lastly, memory is like a “broken net“, that holds some things, but nor others. What unites these very diverse set of images is an echoing sense of uncertainty and distance, which – in turn – is made vaguely concrete by Calvino’s choice of precisely those images that are in some loose way connected with the night of battle.

“Just steep gorges, beds of dry streams overrun by brambles and ferns, smooth pebbles your hobnail shoes slither on, and we’re still at the beginning of the approach march, just as it’s an approach march I’m trying to make now on the trail of memories that crumble under pressure, not visual memories because it was a moonless starless night, memories of my body slithering in the dark, with half a plate of chestnuts in my stomach…”

But in La Poubelle Agreee, a meditation upon garbage disposal in Paris, Calvino becomes far more circumspect, acknowledging that this world of gossamer webs is only made possible by the very real. In one of the most direct observations of the book, he notes that “our genteel lifestyle seemed guaranteed for all eternity by the availability of cheap labour…”, before going on to echo Aristotle’s understanding of the public/private divide (albeit in a very different way):

“…that heaven of ideas in which we undeservedly soar (or imagine we soar) and which can exist only in so far as we are not overwhelmed by the waste with which every act of living incessantly produces.”

But much like The Road to San Giovanni, this understanding is fleeting. By the time we come to the last essay – Calvino’s reflections upon his own style – the concrete has disappeared entirely, and we are back in world of mist and clouds. But I think that those observations in The Road to San Giovanni and La Poubelle Agreee remain crucial, because they show that Calvino possesses the self-awareness to know and understand what it takes for those clouds and mist to exist. Less Wilde’s clarion call of “art for art’s sake“, this is more reminiscent of those immortal lines of Auden:

Nor ask what doubtful act allows

Our freedom in this English house

Our picnics in the sun.”

And it this self-awareness, I feel, that adds immeasurable depth and richness to this book.

 

 

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“…language, which is free and untouched by occupation?”: Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar

In the introduction to this set of elegant essays, Colm Toibin lays out his purpose. “Other communities who have been oppressed,” he says, “– Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there is no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten.” He goes on to invoke Adrienne Rich’s famous saying – “as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” This is perhaps not entirely apposite. The whole quotation begins in the following way: “those who have the power to name and construct social reality choose not to see you or hear you…” Indeed, Rich’s concern is not merely with the construction of a canon, and what it excludes, but the construction of language itself. In The Burning of Paper instead of Children, she writes:

“knowledge of the oppressor
this is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order
the repair of speech
to overcome this suffering)”

Interestingly, in his chapter on Thomas Mann, Toibin quotes the opposite sentiment. In his post-war visits to both West and East Germany, Mann writes: “Who ought to guarantee and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer whose true home, as I have said, is the language, which is free and untouched by occupation?” One feels that Rich might have had something to say about that last bit. After all, as Marina Warner writes, in a beautiful essay called Watch Your Tongues:

“The speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.”

Toibin, while appreciating the pervasive power of language and image to construct a world, is less pessimistic. In his essay on Thom Gunn, while remarking upon the frankness with which he addresses homosexuality in his poetry, he observes:

“The world from Shakespeare to contemporary advertising has been so full of images of heterosexuality that no one notices, but these images are nonetheless absorbed into the most secret and private part of the self. This hidden part of the gay self remains hungry for such ratifying images; it most fully recognizes this need when the need is satisfied, the silence broken, the words spelled out quite naturally, without a second thought.”

This assumes, of course, that words can be spelt out “quite naturally, without a second thought”, without the heaviness of a long, conflicted history. Toibin’s faith that language and culture can be reclaimed simply by virtue of their use is reflected in his wry observation, in his essay on Francis Bacon, about Bacon and Miro’s “denial that [they] made preparatory drawings… for the ears of the Surrealists, who viewed such a thought-out preparation for a painting as a sort of treachery, a betrayal of the power of the unconscious.” Surrealism’s commitment to breaking the hegemony of imposed structures through a method of spontaneity is, of course, well-known, but neither Bacon nor Toibin seem to consider it an urgent necessity. And in his essay on James Baldwin, Toibin chooses to quote the now-famous passage on appropriation:

“[I brought] a special attitude to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… these were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”

So while it would have been interesting to have a critique of language from the point of view of sexuality, as Rich and Warner have done for gender, Toibin’s ambition in Love in a Dark Time is rather more modest. He takes nine famous 20th century artists, all of whom were admittedly homosexual, whose sexuality either brought them to grief, or is simply airbrushed out of memory – and tries to illuminate that ‘area of darkness’ – their sexuality – and its connection to their work. Yet, this is not to be dismissed as a crude attempt at creating – or re-creating – an artistic canon. Toibin’s pain at the ignorance about gay lives is matched only by his terror of caricature, of reducing an artist to his sexuality, of feeding the myth of the ‘tragic queer’. This gives Love in a Dark Time an ambiguous tone, that neatly dovetails with the ambiguous lives lead by most of its principal subjects.

Toibin must walk a tightrope. He must focus on the sexuality of his nine chosen artists, while rejecting simplistic explanations about the relationship between their sexuality and their art. He must illuminate sexuality and its inextricable connection with art, without casting so bright a glare that it overwhelms everything else. For the most part, he walks it well, and it gives the book – to use a description by Robert Lowell of Elizabeth Bishop’s work – “something in motion, weary but persistent.” 

Perhaps the key lies in his choice of subjects. Three of the nine (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Francis Bacon) are Irish – a fraught identity in its own right (and one closest to Toibin’s heart – it is perhaps unsurprising that those three chapters are amongst the longest and most detailed, and their lives are the most lovingly excavated ones in the book). James Baldwin is at the intersection of race and sexuality (Toibin details his struggles to break out of the trope of the “black writer”), and Elizabeth Bishop at the intersection of gender and sexuality. Toibin seems to have paid special heed to Amartya Sen’s warnings against the totalising effects of a single identity, because even his other selections – Thom Gunn, Mark Doty and Thomas Mann (I discount the essay on Pedro Almodovar, which seems almost to be a hasty afterthought) resist easy categorisation, both of their work and their lives. Like Eliot’s observation about James, which he quotes, what Toibin is most concerned with is to prevent – both himself, and his account of his subjects – from being “penetrated by an idea.”

The realisation that his subjects evade easy or definite classifications pervades Toibin’s consideration of their work. The haunting, uncertain quality of the artists’ work leaks into the pages of the book. For instance, Toibin’s account of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is perhaps one of the finest passages in the book:

“There is a sense of overwhelming pain here, but experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the memory of a word.”

Many of the figures that Toibin writes about are “tragic”, in any sense of the word. Wilde was imprisoned and broken for his homosexuality, Casement was executed, Doty’s partner died of HIV. It would be easy to let tragedy overwhelm and define them, but Toibin is always on his guard against reductiveness. At the end of the book, we are left with a conflicted, ambiguous and uncertain sense of the many intersections of art and aesthetics, politics and sexuality, the individual and her circumstances. As in art, so in life, Toibin seems to be telling us: there are no easy conclusions.

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Ambiguity and Certainty: Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin

In a beautiful essay in The Guardian, Colm Toibin compares the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn, observing that both poets “wrote endings to poems which sometimes seemed to hover between conclusion and uncertainty, between what became known as closure and a sense that there was too much regret between the words for closure ever to be possible.”  By way of example, Toibin discusses North Haven, Bishop’s elegy to Robert Lowell. In the third stanza, Bishop writes:

“The goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the white-throated sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.”

Of this, Toibin says:

“Its gravity emerges softly. When you read the line, “The goldfinches are back, or others like them”, it is easy not to spot the grim suggestion that the precise goldfinches are in fact not back at all – they are dead.”

And, of the next line:

Nature repeats herself, or almost does:”,

He notes:

In the next line, Bishop came as close as she could to stating something that was true; the “coziness tinged with melancholy” [how Gunn described her early work] has gone and it has been replaced by another sort of melancholy, a slow, stoical melancholy, when she says: “Nature repeats herself, or almost does.”

Before the stanza ends with:

repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”

And of this, Toibin explains:

“What the following line does now is oddly miraculous, a slow, incantatory dramatisation of the tentative and withholding nature of Bishop’s process as a poet. The last line of this stanza has six words, each in an iambic beat; there is a caesura after three, marked by a semi-colon. The words are in italics, which suggest not emphasis as much as a voice whispering. The last three words, each ending with a sibilant and half-containing the word “sigh”. And what the voice says now is as much as she can say. It is filled with ambiguity and restraint…”

When I read this characterisation, as that of a voice filled with ambiguity and restraint, and moreover, as coming *after* something that is emphatically true, it made me think of an interesting contrast with another poem that uses spring as metaphor and image of something returning: Philip Larkin’s “Trees“. That one ends with the following lines:

“Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

Both in tone (of syllables) and in content, “afresh” is certain and definite – signifying what Toibin calls “closure” – as opposed to the uncertain and ambiguous “revise”. Moreover, when one reads the entire poem, I think it moves in exactly the *opposite* direction to Bishop’s – from uncertainty to certainty.

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
Their recent buds relax and spread
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May
Last year is dead, they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Consider the first stanza – “like something almost being said”. The quintessence of ambiguity, the reaching-out-but-not-quite-finding-what-you’re-looking-for, Virgil’s ever-receding Ausonian fields. Accentuated by “their greenness is a *kind of* grief”. Not grief, but a kind of grief. The best we can do is an unsatisfactory approximation.

And then, in the second stanza, the uncertainty continues with a question “Is it…?” But at this point, the tone shifts, because it is met with a definitive answer. “No, they die too.” And it culminates, of course, in the emphatic closure – “afresh, afresh, afresh”. The sad, searching uncertainty of a “kind of grief” has dissolved into a celebratory affirmation.

To repeat or to revise; and to begin afresh. How fascinating it is that two poems can invoke the same set of images, and then sublimate them into two contrasting, but equally complex and beautiful, interior landscapes.

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Filed under Elizabeth Bishop, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Thom Gunn

Mist over the marches: Kazio Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

“For in this community, the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

A generation after King Arthur’s death, an uneasy calm hangs over South Britain. Saxon and Briton, once implacable foes, now live together in relative peace. But all is not well. Ogres prowl the edge of the village stockades, making daring raids to carry off unwatched children. Briton soldiers roam the countryside, lying in wait for a Saxon warrior on a quest. High up in a mountain fastness, monks use an old torture device to expose their bodies to the beaks and talons of wild birds, in expiation for some nameless, horrible crime. A mist of forgetfulness, arising from the breath of the dragon Querig, which clouds the people’s minds with uncertainty and leaves only the vaguest remembrance of things past, lies heavily upon the land. Boatmen wait to ferry old couples to the island of afterlife, charged with separating them forever unless they can recall their most cherished memories, even through the mist. And Sir Gawain, long ago of King Arthur’s court, now a feeble, aged knight, waits to carry out his old command to slay the dragon and lift the mist of forgetfulness, once and for all.

In this strained climate, Axl and Beatrice, an old couple, decide to leave their village to pay a visit to their son, whom they have not seen in years. The mist has robbed them of their memory of why and when he left them; they remember only that he lives in a village a little way away. On their path, circumstances ensure that they fall in with Wistan, a Saxon warrior who (like Sir Gawain) has been charged with destroying the dragon Querig, to break the mist; and Edwin, a Saxon boy suffering from a dragon bite, who Wistan believes will lead them to Querig’s lair. And before long, they meet Sir Gawain himself. As the journey progresses, and slivers of memory, of their own torn and conflicted pasts, begin to return to Axl and Beatrice, the quest for their son gradually becomes a quest, with Wistan, to lift the mist and find answers to the questions that they cannot still articulate.

Kazio Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is set in the Britain of the Grail Cycle, a mystical land peopled with knights-errant, quarrelsome kings, boatmen to the afterlife, ogres, pixies, and of course, the titular “buried giant”, a dragon. It involves duels, battles, run-ins with ogres and other monstrous beasts, daring subterranean escapes, and an overarching quest that unifies the diverse characters and the divergent narrative strands. On the basis of these well-worn tropes, one might at first blush place The Buried Giant within the canon of high/romance fantasy, located in the ambiguous half-historical, half-imaginary time and space that is a staple feature of the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay, or even Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber.

Unsurprisingly, though, The Buried Giant resists any such easy classification. This is perhaps because Ishiguro’s choice of genre is – in my opinion – instrumental. An writer who has won critical acclaim for novels such as The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go has chosen the Arthurian romance as the framework for his latest novel not because of the narrative possibilities that such a world (with its established conventions, traditions and folklore) would allow him, but because it serves as a vehicle for a deeper set of political and moral arguments (or perspectives) that he wishes to express.

How does this play out in The Buried Giant? To start with, the novel is much more strongly allegorical than most fantasy writing. Ever since Tolkien expressed his “cordial dislike” for allegory, there has been a circumspection about allowing fantasy to collapse into a morality tale. In The Buried Giant, however, the moral question is categorically framed almost from the very beginning, and is reiterated whenever the fantastic elements of the story threaten to take over. For instance, immediately after discovering their torture/expiation device, one of the moments of high suspense and drama in the novel, Wistan asks the monks, “is your Christian god one to be bribed so easily with self-inflicted pain and a few prayers?” Instances like these abound. Even as Sir Gawain hacks at a monster, or as pixies attack a rowboat in the middle of the river, the question remains foregrounded: can peace only be bought by an enforced forgetfulness of past crimes? 

The allegorical focus of the novel also ensures that a number of the characters remain dimly impressionistic, at times even appearing to be caricatures. Sir Gawain’s delightfully quixotic potential is never quite realised, Wistan fights valiantly but fails to free himself from the shackles of his chivalric knighthood, and Edwin, after a promising start, seems to simply fade away into a narrative shadow. The twin exceptions (or perhaps it should be called a single exception) are Axl and Beatrice, whose relationship is portrayed with great depth and sensitivity, and by the end of the novel, has left its pages and lodged itself firmly in the reader’s mind. Perhaps The Buried Giant is better read not as an Arthurian allegory about the connections between violence, collective and individual memory, but as an exploration about the “black shadows [that] make part of the whole” (p. 343) of any relationship (with an incidental, fantastic backdrop).

Such a reading is reflected in the style of the novel, which proceeds in a slow, meandering and unhurried way, much like Axl and Beatrice’s slow progress through the countryside, and their conversations with each other. Dialogue predominates over action; and even action takes its own, leisurely time. The duels are described as though they are being fought in slow motion, and the battles have an unreal, dreamlike quality about them. Much like The Remains of the Day, the novel’s pace is determined from the perspective of its protagonist(s). In another way, this reflects how Ishiguro’s use of the genre is partial at best: it is the rare fantasy novel where the protagonists are, ultimately, passive spectators to most of the pivotal events, whose own quest recedes into irrelevance midway through the novel, and whose personal journey – ultimately – comes entirely apart from the core quest.

Questions about the role of memory and forgetting in shaping identity and conflict have been explored before, in fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is an outstanding example, but perhaps comparisons with Howard Jacobson’s are most apposite. Like Jacobson, Ishiguro is working with a genre that he is unfamiliar with; like Jacobson, he is trying to navigate the tricky terrain of personal and collective memory at the same time; like Jacobson, there are times when the story seems to be subordinate to a broader politico-moral claim. And in my opinion, like Jacobson, he succeeds – but only partially.

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Filed under Kazio Ishiguro, Speculative Fiction

Oscar Wilde and Abanindranath Tagore

A few years ago, while wading through Oscar Wilde’s essays, I came across his discussion of the relationship between art and life in The Decay of the Art of Lying. Written in the form of a dialogue between Cyril (the interlocutor) and Vivian (the aesthete), the essay first lays out Wilde’s objections to the traditional Aristotelian aphorism, that “art imitates life”  (or, the allied claim, justifying naturalism/realism, that the role of art is to faithfully imitate life), because that “would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass.” Through Vivian, Wilde then develops his own counter-view, i.e., that “life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality.” Cyril is, naturally, disbelieving. Vivian explains:

“A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher… Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction… Scientifically speaking, the basis of life–the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – -is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained… 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.”

I understand Wilde to be arguing that our experience of the world is always mediated by our mind, and that this mediation involves the process of imposing meaning (or patterns?) upon pure sense-impression. That, in turn, is derived from prior experiences and, primarily, experiences of art. In a sense, I think the argument is similar to the one about how language both creates and limits the possibilities of imagining and constructing the world. For instance, as this fascinating piece argues, part of the project of the Surrealist writers (through the idea of automatic language) was to ensure the liberation of the mind by causing “language, its traditional structure (syntax, morphology, semantics and phonology, to varying degrees) and expectations… to be destroyed and rebuilt… their words create a derangement of the senses (to borrow Rimbaud’s idea), and of the status quo, because the traditional order of language, of the written word, has been almost completely eviscerated.” Thus, also, later in the essay, Vivian memorably remarks, “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.

Today, while wandering through the rooms of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, I came across a quotation by Abanindranath Tagore that reminded me powerfully and vividly of Wilde. Tagore writes:

“I have noticed that when you have to paint a beautiful landscape you go to the garden or a riverbank and start painting the tree, plants, flowers and animals from observation. I wonder at this effort of yours to capture beauty in such a cheap trap. Do you realise that beauty is not something external and that it lies deep within. Soak your heart first in the shower of Kalidasa’s poetry, ten lift your eyes towards the sky. You will then appreciate the eternal rhythm of the ever-fresh cloud messenger. First soak yourself in the great poet Valmiki’s description of the sea and then proceed to paint a sea of your own.”

The similarities are interesting. Wilde and Tagore both take a categorically anti-realist position. Both of them think that what is all-important is beauty, and that beauty does not lie in the world, but in how we imagine the world through the medium of art. And they both argue that art is aesthetically anterior to the world, to nature, and to life. “Life imitates art.”

At the NGMA, Abanindranath Tagore’s style of painting was compared to expressionism. It set me thinking about the contrast with impressionism. Zola described Monet as opening “a window into nature.” It is written that for impressionism, ‘the painter’s proper field is the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his vision.’ (Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists) So while the impressionists broke with tradition in attempting to capture movement and rhythm, “the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composd as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light, and life” (Mallarme), it was still an attempt at accurately representing the world. Expressionism aimed at the opposite effect. It made me wonder about the exact nature of the connection between Wilde’s aesthetics and expressionist art.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Expressionism, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Oscar Wilde