Category Archives: Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“How does a body manage to endure the weight of his memory?”: Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana

I have discovered what undoubtedly comes as no surprise to anyone: that stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own. How to wrest a linear tale from this? Impossible, I fear. (85)

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo – set in the 19th century, in a fictitious Latin American country called Costaguana – begins with an Author’s Note. Here, Conrad explains the “inspiration” behind the novel: a story that he heard when he was traveling in either the West Indies or the Gulf of Mexico (Conrad can’t remember which) in 1875 or 76, and an autobiographical volume that he found in a second-hand bookshop twenty-five years later. What gave Conrad the confidence to invent an entire nation, complete with history, society, and conflict, set in the middle of a very real part of the world, on the basis of such … thin material? After the work of Edward Said, we now know that the power exercised by European nations at the height of the era of Empire translated into presumptions of knowledge. Nostromo was simply one strand in a web of discursive practices that constructed the non-Western world in a certain way, the basis of which was invariably an unarticulated set of stereotypes, prejudices, and assumptions.

In the Author’s Note, Conrad then went on to employ a more familiar trope: he invented a fictional book called “A History of Fifty Years of Misrule”, written by a fictional person called Don Jose Avellanos, and noted that “that work was never published–the reader will discover why–and I am in fact the only person in the world possessed of its contents.” Here, then, you have that disarming disclaimer: it is not Conrad who is the author of the story, it is a “local source.” Conrad is merely the transcriber. As noted above, this trope is a familiar one, and it performs a function – to use a word that whose meaning will become clearer later on – of “refraction.” On the one hand, it asks us to suspend belief and assume narrative authenticity, by telling us that the actual story belongs to a “native.” At the same time, it gives that actual writer – in this case, Conrad – a fiction of authority, by ascribing to him the role of detached editor rather than involved author. Through this device, we are then expected to take the events described at face value, rather than through the double-distorted lens of foreign eyes.

All this, of course, operates within the realm of fiction, but – as Said explained in Culture and Imperialism – European fiction is inextricably linked with the practices of Imperial rule (not least in implicitly legitimising it), and Conrad’s own position on the subject is ambivalent (as The Heart of Darkness demonstrates most starkly). Nostromo, at its heart, involves an asymmetrical assumption of authority: authority assumed by Conrad to tell the story of a tumultuous Latin American nation, that could be a stand-in for any one of the countries of the region, and based upon a second assumption – that his subjects cannot write back.

It is that second assumption that is challenged by Juan Gabriel Vasquez in The Secret History of Costaguana. Its central premise will remind readers of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, once described as “a rebuke to Albert Camus’ The Outsider.” The Meursault Investigation rewrites the story of The Outsider from the perspective of the brother of the nameless Arab that Meursault shoots towards the end of the novel. In The Secret History of Costaguana, we are informed that “Costaguana” is actually Colombia, and that Joseph Conrad – struggling with writers’ block and financial troubles – “stole” the story after conducting detailed interviews with Jose Altamirano, who had fled from Colombia during the tumultuous secession and birth pangs of Panama. Altamirano – the first-person narrator – is now determined to “write himself back into history.” The Secret History of Costaguana is Latin America’s answer to the Imperial conceit of Nostromo, like The Meursault Investigation is Algeria’s answer to the colonial arrogance of The Outsider.

Vasquez’s novel chronicles the bloody conflict between the conservative and liberal factions of Colombia,  their fraught relationship with the province of Panama, and the conflict around the building of the Panama Canal, that would ultimately lead to an American-sponsored uprising, and the birth of independent Panama. The story is told through the eyes of Jose Altamirano, who travels to Panama in search of an unknown father, and despite his best attempts to live an “apolitical” life, is ultimately – and inevitably – caught in the eye of the political storm. For much of the book, the action turns around the catastrophic French attempt to build the Canal, an attempt that would end in failure and ignominy. One of the major protagonists, however, is Miguel Altamirano, Jose’s father, who has been (effectively) “hired” to provide favourable press for the French:

I discovered that over the course of two decades my father had produced, from his mahogany desk – bare but for the skeleton of a hand on a marble pedestal – a scale model of the Isthmus. No, model is not the word, or perhaps it is the applicable word to the first years of his journalistic labors; but starting from some imprecise moment (futile, from a scientific point of view, to try to date it), what was represented in my father’s articles was more a distortion, a version – again the damned little world – of Panamanian reality. And that version, I began to realize as I read, only touched on objective reality at certain select points, the way a merchant ship only concerns itself with certain ports. In his writings, my father did not fear for a moment changing what was already known or what everyone remembered. With good reason, besides: in Panama, which after all was a state of Colombia, almost no one knew, and most of all, no one remembered. Now I can say it: that was my first contact with the notion, which would so often appear in my future life, that reality is a frail enemy to the power of the pen, that anyone can found a utopia simply by arming himself with good rhetoric. In the beginning was the word: the contents of that biblical vacuity were revealed to me there, in the port of Colon, in front of my father’s desk. Reality real like a creature of ink and paper: that discovery, for someone of my age, is of the sort that shakes worlds, transforms beliefs, makes atheists devout and vice versa. (105)

Gran Colombia

At one level, of course, this is a simple – albeit effective – reminder that “fake news” was around long before the era of Donald Trump, and deployed by the “liberal” West for its own, cynical purposes. But I think that Vasquez operates at at least two further levels here. The first is a writing-back to Conrad (and Conrad’s ilk). Descriptions that “touch on objective reality at certain select points” (and it is worthwhile to remember, for the analogy that follows immediately afterwards, that Conrad was a seaman himself), and help “found … a utopia simply by arming [oneself] with good rhetoric” are accurate accounts of precisely what Orientalist writers were doing.

The paragraph quoted above is then followed up with this:

Let’s clear this up once and for all: it’s not that my father wrote lies. Surprised and at the same time full of admiration, over the first few months of life with my father I began to notice the strange illness that a few years back had begun to guide his perception and, therefore, his pen. Panamanian reality entered his eyes as if from a stick for measuring water depth from the shore: it folded, it bent, folded at the beginning and bent afterward, or vice versa. The phenomenon is called “refraction”, as more competent people have told me. Well then, my father’s pen was the largest refractive lens of the Sovereign State of Panama; only the fact that Panama was in itself a place so prone to refraction can explain why nobody, I mean nobody, seemed to notice. At first I thought, as any respectful son would, that the fault was mine, that I had inherited the worst of distortions: my mother’s cynicism. But I soon accepted the obvious.

To parse this, I think it might be worthwhile to take a step backwards: part of Vasquez’s intellectual project is also to write back against the dominant style of the 20th-Century Latin American boom writers, embodied most famously by his Colombian counterpart, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In more than one public interview, Vasquez has repudiated Marquez’s style, and the broader project of magical realism. Here, for example, is what he said:

I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.

It is surely no coincidence that the word “distortion” occurs both in Jose’s description of his father’s literary project, and Vasquez’s description of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the novel progresses, Miguel’s narrative begins to fall apart like a house of cards; and it is difficult not to see how, at an intertextual level, The Secret History of Costaguana tells us that magical realism is an insufficient – and maybe even dishonest – way to tell the Latin American story.

This should not be taken to suggest that The Secret History of Costaguana is written in some grimly realist style where – in the words of P.G. Wodehouse – “nothing happens until page 350, when the moujik decides to commit suicide.” Vasquez’s style is wry, ironic, humorous, and savage. It reminded me of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (without the magic), but even more, of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (not least because both writers deal with American imperialism, separated by six decades). Here, for example, is a description of one of the tragedies surrounding the construction of the canal:

After the fire, “sixteen Panamanians were admitted to the hospital with breathing troubles”, wrote my father (the breathing trouble consisted of the fact that they were not breathing, because the sixteen Panamanians were dead. (160)

Or again, in describing his father:

The reason: at that moment he had acquired, definitively now, the famous Colombian illness of SB (Selective Blindness), also known as PB (Partial Blindness) and even as RIP (Retinopathy due to Interests of a Political nature). (145)

Perhaps the closest analogy that I can think of from the region is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War at the End of the World. The difference is, however, that in its choice of setting, Llosa’s novel still feels at a distance. The Secret History of Costaguana – in dealing with the timeless theme of imperialism – resonates; and nowhere more than towards the end, where the Americans’ cynical support of the Panamanian uprising in order to secure their interests in the Panama Canal reminds one of a century’s worth of similar interventions, continuing to this day.

After all, as Jose wryly notes, in words as current today:

I wondered how to live in peace, how to perpetuate the happiness I’d been granted, without noticing that in my country these are political questions. Reality soon disabused me. (205)

 

 

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Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Latin American Fiction, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“All I had instead of a sculptor’s talent was quiet rage and three minutes of inspiration…”: Alexandra Berlina (ed.), “Victor Shklovsky: A Reader”

I first chanced upon the Soviet literary theorist Victor Shklovsky four years ago, gatecrashing an Oxford seminar which was ostensibly about literary interpretation and the classics, but taught by a young lecturer subversive enough to slip in a little Foucault between the Homer and the Virgil. He began his course with Shklovsky’s Art as Technique. Shklovsky’s concept of ‘defamiliarisation’ fascinated me then; I read in and around the subject whenever I could. And now, with the publication of Alexandra Berlina’s Victor Shklovsky: A Reader, there exists a painstakingly compiled – and edited – volume that serves as the ideal introduction towards understanding one of the more enigmatic literary scholars – and individuals – of the 20th century.

As Berlina points out in her introduction to the Reader, “Shklovsky wrote while fighting in the First World War, participating in the February Revolution, and trying to stage an anti-Bolshevik coup. He wrote while hiding in a mental hospital, almost shredded by a bomb, and while torn between an unrelenting love object in Berlin and an imprisoned wife in Russia” (Berlina). Consequently, there is little sense, she argues, in trying to separate Shklovsky’s formal scholarship from his more autobiographical writings. His books – as he said – were not written with the “quiet consistency of academic works.” In The Reader, therefore, formal essays of literary criticism rub shoulders with books of letters, technical concepts jostle with existential musings. The division is broadly chronological, divided into six parts, and an attempt to present a representative samples of Shklovsky’s writings, as he evolved and changed over time. One significant omission – for obvious reasons – is the period during which Stalinist repression was at its peak, and Shklovsky’s voice had surely become distorted out of all recognition, especially after the publication of A Monument to Scholarly Error, his recantation of formalism.The writings pick up again after the thaw, in the mid-1950s.

Through the course of the introductions – and then in Shklovsky’s own words – we are introduced to the core concepts of formalism, especially that of ostranenie (which Berlina translates as enstranging – an amalgam of ‘strange’ and ‘estrange’). Shklovsky argues that in the course of our lives, are perception of things gradually becomes “automatic”. Therefore:

“… what we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make the stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “ostranenie” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is its own end in art and must be prolonged.”

Since the purpose of art, therefore, is to de-automatise perception and replace mere recognition with actual “seeing”, “ostranenie consists in not calling a thing or event by its name but describing it as if seen for the first time, as if happening for the first time.”

As Shklovksy himself recognised, of course, the thought behind ostranenie was not entirely original. That the task of poetry was to make the ordinary strange was a leitmotif of the romantic poets, of Gerard Manley Hopkins when he wrote “all things counter, original, spare, and strange” – and, later – the basis of Eliot’s “shudder”. What Shklovsky did was to systematise and develop the concept, and give it rigour through a range of examples, in essays such as The Resurrection of the Word, Art as Technique and Literature Beyond Plot:

“The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” (from The Resurrection of the Word)

And:

“Image tropes consist in calling objects by unusual names. The goal of this device is to place an object into a new semantic field, among concepts of a different order – for instance, stars and eyes, girls and grey ducks – whereby the image is usually expanded by the description of the substituted object. Synesthetic epithets that, for instance, define auditory concepts through visual ones or vice versa, are comparable to images. For instance, crimson chimes, shining sounds. This device was popular among the Romantics… This is the work a writer does by violating categories, by wrenching the chair out of furniture.” (from Literature Beyond Plot)

(Berlina also makes the interesting point that Shklovsky’s theories were opposed to Brecht, in that the latter believed that political consciousness through art could be raised only by alienating the audience from the work, while Shklovsky “did not believe that restricting feelings was necessary in order to promote critical thought” (Berlina).)

Shklovsky’s idea of de-automatising perception is linked with his stress upon form:

“The formal method is fundamentally simple. It’s the return to craft. The most wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t deny the ideological content of art, but considers so-called content to be a phenomenon of form.”

Hence, “formalism”, or a concern “with devices created by a writer to combat automatism, to make the reader sensitive to the “content”.”

This stress on form brought Shklovsky into direct conflict with the post-revolutionary Soviet regime. After an acrimonious debate on literary theory with Trotsky, he eventually found himself in exile, in Berlin. Berlina’s account of the Russian emigre community in Berlin – with Nabokov, Gorky, Bely and Pasternak, among others – makes it sound like a rival to the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al. Shklovsky, however, felt dislocated and alienated, a situation exacerbated by an unrequited love. It was at this point that he wrote A Sentimental Journey and Zoo: Letters Not About Love. The latter is particularly interesting, because it is a book of love letters that speak about everything but love. Shklovsky would say later:

“At the time when I claimed that art was free of content and beyond emotion, I myself was writing books that were bleeding – A Sentimental Journey and Zoo. Zoo has the subtitle ‘Letters not about Love’, because it was a book about love…”

Here we see Shklovsky the individual, torn from his form and his devices, cut adrift and struggling for words. The results are strangely moving:

“This book tells about a woman who doesn’t hear me, but I’m all around her name like the surf, like an unfading garland.”

And:

“Memory became rings on the water. The rings reached the stony shore. There is no past. I won’t say: “Sea, give me back the rings.” The morning of the song never ends; it’s only us who leave. Let us see in the book, as if on water, what the heart had to cross and to pass, how much blood and pride – the things we call lyricism – remains from the past.” 

Shklovsky was eventually let back into the Soviet Union, and the rest of the book excerpts his writings after his return. In works such as The Technique of Writing CraftThe Hamburg Score, and Once Upon a Time, literary analysis merges with autobiographical detail and even more general musings:

“It’s difficult to take leave of your own childhood. You feel as if you had entered your old apartment: you see the familiar sun-bleached wallpaper, the familiar round stove in the corner, its door unpainted, and the stucco with holes poked in it, all the way to the wooden planks. There is no furniture, and you’d rather not sit on the windowsill, but you linger. You cannot live here, but how can you leave your past, on what kind of transport.”

And thoughts on the revolution:

“I remember walking with Mayakovsky, whom even now in my mind I must call Vladimir Vladimirovich, and not Volodya, along the paved streets of Petersburg, the sun-speckled avenues of the Summer Garden, the Neva embankments, the Zhukovskaya Street, where the woman lived whom the poet loved. Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.  The poet was quiet, sad, ironic, calm. He was sure – he knew – that the revolution would happen soon. He looked at the things around him the way one does then the thing is about to disappear.”

Berlina warns us that in reading Shklovsky on the Revolution, we must remember that even after the thaw, he was writing under an atmosphere of fear and censorship (this is something that comes across very strongly in some of the writings of the Strugatsky Brothers as well); and so, even his writings from the late 50s and the 60s are bound to contain occlusions and evasions. Nonetheless, what is interesting is that from Shklovsky’s writings, we get a sense of the Revolution that is very similar to what we find in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: a transient moment that saw the overturning of order, the lifting of the stifling hand of fate from individuals’ throats, and the briefest of windows where the possibility of freedom seemed visible. But then, as Shklovsky writes, in what could be a fitting epigraph:

“He hoped fervently that delusions would never disappear. They are the tracks left by the search for the truth. They are mankind looking for the meaning of life.”

An epigraph to the book, and perhaps to existence.

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Connections: Victor Shklovsky and Mourid Barghouti on sadness and satisfaction

In the footnotes to the annotated edition of The Victor Shklovsky Reader, there is a footnote that comes at the end of this paragraph from Resurrecting the Word:

The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. For instance, moon: the original meaning of this word is “measurer”; weeping is cognate with the Latin for “to be flogged”; infant (just like the old Russian synonym, otrok) literally means “not speaking.”” 

In the footnote, the editor adds:

Sadness derives from the Proto-Germanic *sadaz (satisfied), with sated progressing to weary.

This fascinating etymological connection between sadness and satisfaction finds its poetic home, I think, in Mourid Barghouti’s The Pillow, one of my favourite poems:

THE PILLOW
The pillow said:
at the end of the long day
only I know
the confident man’s confusion,
the nun’s desire,
the slight quiver in the tyrant’s eyelash,
the preacher’s obscenity,
the soul’s longing
for a warm body where flying sparks
become a glowing coal.
Only I know
the grandeur of unnoticed little things;
only I know the loser’s dignity,
the winner’s loneliness
and the stupid coldness one feels
when a wish has been granted.
The last two lines, especially.

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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

Connections: Italo Calvino and Rabee Jaber on Memory

“The memories are still there, hidden in the grey tangle of the brain, in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought: assuming its true, that is, that every grain of this mental sand preserves a moment of our lives fixed in such a way that it can never be erased yet buried under billions and billions of other grains.

– Italo Calvino, Memories of a Battle

“What is memory?… Fields, yes, fields and castles, caves and passageways. Right now I’m gathering up my memories and watching them flow, I’m plunging my hand into the stream and groping for one specific memory, as if looking for a polished stone that sleeps on the riverbed.”

– Rabee Jaber, Confessions (reviewed here)

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“… the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, fragmentary thoughts…”: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Art of the Novel’

Two years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, and was very struck by it. On re-reading it this week, I still fond the odd brilliant turn of phrase, the flashes of insight and of wisdom – but I also found the two central claims of his essays, which had captured my imagination last time, to be over-generalised, ahistorical, and even, at times, faintly ludicrous in the sheer, unreflective confidence with which he voices them. All of Kundera’s novels teach us of the perils of certainty. Re-reading The Art of the Novel, I found myself wishing that he would take some of his own advice, when it came to his beliefs about the history and purpose of the novel.

Kundera’s first claim is that the novel is a “European” creation, stemming out of the Enlightenment’s “passion to know” (a quote from Husserl) and, in a sense, embodies “European” history. “We have a history of Europe“, he writes, “From the year 1000 up to our time, that has been a single common experience”. The key to understanding a significant part of that common experience is the novel. Kundera has his canon, assembled chronologically: “with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it inquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine “what happens inside”, to unmask the secret life of the feelings; with Balzac, it discovered man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusion of the irrational into human behaviour and decisions; It probes time: the elusive past with Proust, the elusive present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it examines the role of the myths from the remote past that control our present actions.” In the late eighteenth century, when readers and writers “signed the verisimilitude pact“, and the novel began to attempt to imitate reality, there was a brief phase when the novel went astray; but it was restored, in a way, by Tolstoy and Proust, and then by the modernists (Borges makes a similar argument in his introduction to Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel).

But this is, in many ways, a bizarre argument. The conception of Europe as a geographically, spiritually and culturally bounded unit, going back a thousand years, is deeply ahistorical. Where, in Kundera’s cultural and spiritual universe, for instance, does the Moorish rule over Granada fit in? How does a thousand-year old history manage to avoid the fact that four hundred of those thousand years were defined by colonialism (and then Empire)? How, indeed, does Kundera manage to even talk about European identity, and the “passion to know” as distinctly “European”, without a single mention of how that very identity was irrevocably shaped by colonialism?

As history, this is bad enough, but as literary history, it’s even worse. Kundera’s canon is Cervantes, Richardson, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Mann (and a few other modernists). Each of these writers, he argues, made some striking advance in our understanding of the human self and the human condition. Missing from his canon are precisely those writers, equally important in the history of the novel, who, as Edward Said points out – cannot be understood without understanding the relationship between “Europe” and its colonies: Austen, Conrad, Kipling, Camus. Kundera would probably simply write them out by fiat: according to him, a true novel must never affirm, must eschew verisimilitude, and must only deal in hypotheticals. But surely this more an arbitrary constraint, rather than a faithful interpretation or historical reconstruction, of the place of the novel in history.

Kundera’s approach, interestingly, seems to be an embodiment of precisely what Edward Said warns against in Culture and Imperialism: that is, to treat novels written in (the geographical) space (that we now know as) Europe as being either about Europe, and/or “parables about the human condition“. The role of the colony in shaping the very identity of the metropolis (cultural and material) is ignored. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera ignores it not only in his sweeping claims about the novel being about the European spirit of enquiry and enigmas of the self, but even in his construction of the literary canon.

His second claim is one made repeatedly as well: that the novel must never affirm, but only “remain hypothetical, playful or ironic.” In his first essay, the claim is somewhat softer: the novel must “take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguitybe obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters)… [and] have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” Insofar as the novel must not reproduce totalitarian thought processes, I find this statement to be uncontroversial. A totalitarian novel, which ignored the complexity and ambiguity of human existence, would be an aesthetic failure before it became a political failure. But through the course of the essays, via discussions on verisimilitude, the claim grows stronger. By the fourth essay, it has split into two: encompassing complexity, and not carrying an “apodictic message”, but rather, as quoted above, being “hypothetical, playful or ironic.” This is somewhat similar to Joseph Brodsky’s praise of Danilo Kis, and his ability to convert political tragedy into the purely aesthetic.

Which is all very well, but as Edward Said (again) reminds us, playfulness and irony are luxuries that many do not have. In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Said points out that in places were the sheet anchor of existence itself has become unmoored, where daily life has no stability amidst continuing violence, separating the political from the aesthetic is no longer a matter of artistic choice. Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun remains one of the finest novel that I have read, as well as being a politically committed work in precisely the way that Kundera takes great pains to denounce. It must be said that there is a certain arrogance to taking specific “European” social and political backgrounds, and developing a universal aesthetic theory of the novel on the basis. While he does mention Octavio Paz at one point, it would seem that for Kundera, novelists outside Europe do not exist. There is no Mahfouz, no Tayeb Salih, no Ghassan Kanafani, no Elias Khoury; the political and social context out which their writings emerged is not discussed; on the other hand, we are to take the European condition as defining once and for all time what will be the “spirit” of the novel.

Much as I now am no longer quite so impressed with The Art of the Novel, there remain flashes of Kundera’s regular brilliance. The distinction between Proust and Kafka, for instance, is particularly striking:

“For Proust, a man’s interior universe comprises a miracle, an infinity that never ceases to amaze us. But that is not what amazes Kafka. He does not ask what internal motivations determine man’s behavior. He asks a question that is radically different: what possibilities remain for man in a world where the external determinants have become so overpowering that internal impulses no longer carry weight?”

And on language:

“Metaphor seems to me indispensable as a means of grasping, through instantaneous revelation, the ungraspable essence of things, situations, characters.”

When I inevitably sit down to read The Art of the Novel a third time, it will be for these.

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Edward Said and Carl Jung

Last year, while reading Danilo Kis’ book of short stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I was particularly struck by an observation made by Joseph Brodsky in his Introduction. After observing that European totalitarianism was a theme that was treated often in the 20th century, Brodsky went on to write:

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 [Koestler, Orwell etc]. 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.”

That critical distance allows the aestheticisation of tragedy in a way that makes the work of art all the more impactful, is not new. I’ve read it before, in analyses of the scene from the Aeneid, where Aeneas sees his ancestors’ statues in Carthage, and of course, in Eliot (“poetry is an escape from emotion).

Recently, I have been re-reading Edward Said’s beautifully rich “Culture and Imperialism“, and I came across this quotation from R.P. Blackmur, on Yeats’ poetry:

“His direct association with Parnell and O’Leary, with the Abbey Theatre, with the Easter Uprising, bring to his poetry what R.P. Blackmur, borrowing from Jung, calls ‘the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.’ (Blackmur, Eleven Essays in the European Novel, p. 3).

I haven’t read Blackmur’s book (it’s unavailable in India), so I don’t know the context in which Blackmur used this phrase, and I’m not entirely sure what Said means by it. I looked up what Jung seemed to mean by it; he uses the phrase in a lecture at Yale, saying that “if, therefore… a person should be convinced of the exclusively sexual origin of his neuroses, I would not disturb him of his opinion, because such a conviction… particularly if it is deeply rooted… is an excellent defence against the onslaught of the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.” This interpretive article opposes the terrible ambiguity with “the reassurance of logical systems.” The point, I suppose, is that distance allows you the luxury of fitting the experience in a systemic context of prior and subsequent causes, temporal and logical sequences, and allows you to explain it by imposing symmetry and order upon it.

Immediately after, Said goes on to write:

“Yeats’ work of the early 1920s has an uncanny resemblance to the engagement and ambiguities of Darwish’s Palestinian poetry half a century later, in its renderings of violence, of the overwhelming suddenness and surprises of historical events, of politics and poetry as opposed to violence and guns (‘The Rose and the Dictionry’), of the search for respites after the last border has been crossed, the last sky flown in.

I suppose that, in applying Jung’s words to the poetry of Yeats and Darwish, Blackmur and Said are trying to say that immediacy of experience can liberate you from the explanatory structures that distance will impose. Art that expresses – or embodies – the ambiguity of an immediate experience is not inferior with art that sublimates it with the benefit of distance.

There will be two very different kinds of art, of course. But perhaps the point is that contra Brodsky, we need the “faults of urgency” as much as we need the aestheticisation of distance, and neither of the two are inferior to each other.

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Addendum: Edward Said and Colm Toibin

Coincidentally, soon after finishing Colm Toibin’s The South, I came across the following lines in Edward Said’s Culture & Imperialism, analysing the novels of Flaubert and Conrad:

“Unlike Robinson Crusoe on his island, these modern versions of the imperialist who attempts self-redemption are doomed ironically to suffer interruption and distraction, as what they had tried to exclude from their island worlds penetrates anyway. The covert influence of imperial control in Flaubert’s imagery of solitary imperiousness is striking when juxtaposed with Conrad’s overt representations.

Within the codes of European fiction, these interruptions of an imperial project are realistic reminders that no one can in fact withdraw from the world into a private version of reality.”

The constant impingement of the world into increasingly desperate, and increasingly doomed, attempts to create a private reality is, I feel, one of the central concerns in Toibin’s The South.

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“… 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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