Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Garden of Well-Told Tales: "Foe," voiced by J.M. Coetzee

           A recent discussion on, an online network for readers and writers, raised the question: What constitutes "literary fiction"? No one's pretending to give a simple answer, but a participant nominated "James" (the site does not permit full names), raised a number of good points. I wish to address just one of them, his emphasis on 'voice' in literary fiction.
           Though I can't fully credit him, knowing only a first name, James mentioned voice twice:
"In literary fiction, anything goes, the author can freely experiment with voice and style... [and] Character (or voice) usually comes before plot."
And in another statement he makes a similar argument:  
"The words and style tend to make it a pleasure to read (as opposed to, say, an action driven page turner, where the action makes it a pleasure to read)."
            I have recently read three short works of fiction that I see as exemplifying the essential virtue of a strong narrative voice.
"Foe" by J. M. Coetzee; "The Meursault Investigation" by Kamel Daoud; and "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" by Hilary Mantel. In each of these books stories are told by a narrator who buttonholes our attention from the book's first words and holds it to the last. 
           Here, for example, is "Foe"'s narrator, the ship-wrecked Susan Barton appealing to the author of "Robinson Cruso" to tell her story: ''The island was Cruso's (yet by what right? by the law of islands? is there such a law?), but I lived there too, I was no bird of passage, no gannet or albatross, to circle the island once and dip a wing and then fly on over the boundless ocean. Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr. Foe: that is my entreaty."
         Ah, we think, here is someone worth listening to. 
         In this excerpt passage from Coetzee's short novel, chosen pretty much by random, the reader may register impressions such as...:
          Well, we are indeed in the early the 18th century, in which long sentence of relatively complicated structure are routine. Long-windedness is not the mortal sin to the readers and writers of that period that it is today for the terser style readers expect and most writers of English deliver. Today, a college English composition teacher (I used to be one) would say, 'Whoops, you've got a run-on sentence here, right after 'but i lived there too.' You can't just put a comma there and go straight into another independent clause.' 
          Looking at this sentence today, I would have to ask 'why did we bother about such stuff?' Susan Barton's so-called run-on sentence presents no barrier to reader comprehension. In fact the comma, rather than the full-stop period, emphasizes the rising momentum of Barton's surging argument. 
           And no newspaper editor would allow Barton to follow 'bird of passage' with two examples of exactly that sort of bird: 'no gannet or albatross.' Stick to the essential facts, our news writers would be told. But anyone reading Barton's (that is, of course, Coatzee's) prose with an ear for the joy of language finds pleasure in hearing those precisely chosen names. Those are the (phonetically interesting) names of two kinds of birds who do fly lengthy passages over the blue Pacific to island hop and check out the local food sources in the rich off-shore bays. Plus 'albatross' carries a certain cachet for all readers of English literature, though not for the fictional Susan Barton, since Coleridge would not write his albatross-burdened "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" for another century. 
          The point is that Coatzee's language -- his fictional voice -- here and throughout this book embodies the pleasures of the English speech of that time and place: a joy in embellishment, in assertion, in the pleasure of argument for its own sake. 
           Similar claims may be made for the voice of Dickens and many of his characters a century later, though his speaker are so full of the joy of elaboration, so enamored of the sound of their own voice, that a good deal of Dickens's humor comes from making fun of their pomposity. 
           And Shakespeare's speakers both embody a degree of elaboration unmatched anywhere (in my experience at least), while other characters offer snidely under-cutting rhetorical thrusts. 
Polonius: "Your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it, for to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?"

Getrude interrupts, concisely: "More matter with less art."          Literary fiction has room for lots of voices; Hamlet's poetic complaints. His mother's pointed questions. Other sorts of fiction, genres, give us the same voice, again, again, again. We recognize it. Often we choose a book because that's exactly what we wish to hear. 
           But the pleasure of English speech spoken well is not what we experience often when we turn on the radio, click on the TV, pick up the phone, or log onto a web site. On these media it's rare to encounter truly crafted language.
          Satisfying the craving for well crafted speech -- a voice with something to say, and saying it well -- is what an authorial performance such as Coatzee's does. It gives us something our soul knows it needs. 

4.) What is more important to you, story, or character? Why?
A.) What's important to me is voice. Somebody has to be telling something -- let's say 'story' -- in a compelling way. Somebody has to have something to say, and has to know how to say it. The writer, through whatever artifice -- first-person narrator or third-person omniscient or anywhere in between -- has to speak with authority, invite, seduce, or demand the reader's attention. And hold it by delivering the goods. You probably need both story and deep, complex, credible characters to do that job, but you don't get in the door, at least my door, without a tongue in your head. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Garden of Fiction: A Mixed Verdict on "The Meursault Investigation"

          I have mixed feelings about "The Meursault Investigation" by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud, a book that has received considerable worldwide attention and which I have been eager to read in the year since its publication.
          Here is Amazon's capsule summary of the novel's premise:
"He was the brother of 'the Arab' killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus' classic novel ['L'etranger']. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling's memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: He gives his brother a story and a name―Musa―and describes the events that led to Musa's casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach."
             Like almost everyone, I was intrigued by that premise. I remember reading "L'etranger" (translated then as "The Stranger," and more recently, and contentiously, as "The Outsider") for a French class and wondering why the victim of the Meursault's maddeningly pointless crime was referred to merely as "l'arabe." Thus, a living breathing human being was cheated of a name. Reading "The Stranger," I simply could not understand how Meursault, the contemporary antihero, could care so absurdly little for the life of the man he killed -- or, ultimately, for his own. Well, that turns out to be the point.
            Daoud's book invents a first-person narrator, who tells the story of Meursault's crime from the point of view of the victim's brother. In that way the novel rights one of Meursault's wrongs: he gives the victim a name and therefore a personal identity and family.  But for much of the novel's first ninety pages or so, I had difficulty believing this correction of the record was worth a whole book. Daoud's narrator, who does nothing but drink in a cafe and obsess over his "pathetic" life (to use his own term), repeats accusation that the highly regarded classic "L'etranger" denied the victim a name about a hundred times through the first two-thirds of the book.
            I take this denial of a victim's identity to stand for a wider point. The European, Western colonialism that dominated and oppressed most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East for centuries deprived these societies of their own identity, suppressed their culture, forbade their religions, and exploited their resources, stealing their wealth to fill the coffers of rich and powerful nations. It's hard to say what reckoning should be made for these crimes. Perhaps we have not yet paid it.
            After Daoud's narrator cycles back and forth through the misery the murder of his brother Musa brings to his mother and himself, he announces that he will begin the whole tale over again. He acknowledges to his listener (a nameless 'researcher' with a notebook) that "I should have told you this story in chronological order." Indeed. The remainder of this book -- whether intended to be truth, allegory, or realistic fiction; in fact it works on all these levels -- is a devastating and riveting psychological portrait of the central figures and the society they now inhabit. And its reach goes well beyond an indictment of Meursault, his crime, his 'outsider' status, and the praise heaped on Camus's book, to the insights Daoud has to offer into the psychology of loss and the 'absurdity' of life as experienced by a particular man in his own harrowing time and place, leaving us with a blistering critique of the deadening independent Algeria that has replaced the exploitive French colony.
            "The Meursault Investigaton" may in fact be the literary tour de force critics have pronounced it, although I found much of this book not much fun to read. The good parts, however, are likely to stay with me (and any reader) for a very long time.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Garden of Fiction: A Long Slog with the Florida Conquistadors in 'The Moor's Account'

Like the subject it portrays, this book went on too long. "The Moor's Account" delivers an "alternative" account of a 1527 Spanish exploration of the Gulf Coast of Florida. Since few of us know anything about the "official" account of this (or any other) Spanish expedition to North America, I'm not sure that there's a crying need for an alternative. Nevertheless, my opinion is definitely a minority report on a novel widely and extravagantly praised by reviewers. The novel (as Amazon tells us) was a  A New York Times Notable Book, A Wall Street Journal Top 10 Book of the Year, An NPR Great Read of 2014, A Kirkus Best Fiction Book of the Year, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
             Nevertheless I have a sneaking submission that the critics are rewarding author Laila Lalami for her good intentions rather than the actual experience of reading this book. Here is Goodreads' capsule summary: "In these pages, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America: Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico. The slave of a Spanish conquistador, Estebanico sails for the Americas with his master. .." And, when they get there, to make a very long story short, nothing goes as planned. The expedition's leader captures some Indians and tortures them. The captives tell him what they realize he wants to hear (that's what torture gives you): there's gold in them there swamps, and the expedition blunders on, meeting various disasters, suffering from malaria, until only a few surviving members (including, notably, the Moroccan slave now called Estebanico, who naturally is the only one among them with sense). 
         Here's the moral of the story (via Goodreads): "As the dramatic chronicle unfolds, we come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, black men played a significant part in New World exploration and Native American men and women were not merely silent witnesses to it. In Laila Lalami’s deft hands, Estebanico’s memoir illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, even as storytelling can offer a chance for redemption and survival."
           In short, it's revisionist history. Why do some people (the people who write such reviews) find revisionist history so satisfying? Is it guilty compensation for writing "black men" out of the story of early American history?  
          Our hero is a Moor, from Morocco. Americans such as myself know little of the history of Morocco. That's what I'd like to read about. 

Anyway here's my dissenting review of "The Moor's Account":
          I think the best parts of "The Moor's Account" by
Laila Lalami have to do with the central figure's life in Morocco, at a time when the country increasingly falls under the thumb of the Portuguese and Spanish. Falling into debt because of the Colonial takeover of his city, our hero sells himself into slavery to provide money for his family and is sold again to a Spanish nobleman who takes takes him on an expedition to pillage Florida. 
           I was hoping that an imaginative re-creation of a journey of exploration that receives little attention from our Anglo-centric history of the New World would prove fascinating. But the tale our author spins is perhaps too much like the real thing: long, confusing, filled with tedious physical suffering, and offering little light on what the indigenous people were like. There's even less to like, or to choose from, among the drearily egocentric Spanish characters. As I understand matters, the fictional premise is that this work is the enslaved Moor's first-person account of this 16th century expedition -- an account excluded from Spain's official record. Acting on her premise, the author appears determined to dramatize in detail every encounter in her hero's survivalist odyssey. But we can't tell these indigenous tribes apart. They blur together and end up being what the Indians have always been to their conquerors: the natives. 
            The book's hero loved Morocco, and his family there. He thinks about his mother and brothers all the time, to wonder how they are faring. As a reader, I wanted to know how they were doing as well.
            But nobody, in the Anglo-speaking world at least, has ever loved these Spanish exploiters of the New World. The subject of this novel needs more wonder, poetry, and meaning than "The Moor's Account" delivers. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

"The Italian Americans": Cultivating a Nation

            Public television in Boston (WGBH) broadcast "The Italian Americans" this week (first screened a year ago), a historical account beginning with the arrival of some 4 million immigrants in the early decades of the 20th century and carrying through to the place and prominence of Italian Americans in America today.  When I tuned in Thursday night, actor Stanley Tucci was narrating the film's account of the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
            In this segment (Episode two) of the documentary, historians and other sources make very clear how the case was seen, and was long remembered, through Italian American eyes: as an attack on them. 
            "Up until the 1960s," one of the episode's authorities tells us, "every Italian family heard the story at the dinner table... If you stepped out line, this is what they would do to you."
            What American justice in the state of Massachusetts did to Sacco and Vanzetti was an "appalling" miscarriage of justice overseen by a bigoted judge before a prejudiced jury, the show tells us. Historian Bruce Watson paraphrases the words of one of the jurymen (in fact the foreman) who said "they should all be hanged," whether or not they were guilty of the crime they were accused of -- simply because of who "they" were: political radicals, foreigners, Italians.
            The trial was framed in a way that made the defendants appear like dangerous criminals. They were shackled together and walked from a local lockup to the courthouse in Dedham each day surrounded by a phalanx of armed plain clothes police. Once inside the courtroom, they were made to sit inside a metal cage.  
            Judge Webster Thayer made clear (in rulings inside, and statements outside, the courthouse) his vicious hatred for the political movement Sacco and Vanzetti represented -- the radical pro-labor, anti-capitalist attack on his America's Guilded Age status quo, a time of domination by the very rich over an oppressed mass of underpaid industrial laborers and farmers; a time of ever-increasing gap between the very rich and the working poor. (Sound familiar?)
            The trial wasn't about the crime Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of (the robbery of a shoe factory payroll and murder of two guards), the show's experts tell us, it was about anarchism. Once the information came out in court that both men were professed anarchists, "it was all about anarchism."
            The political background for this scapegoating of two self-proclaimed radicals in order to put the Italian anarchist movement on trial was a string of attempted bombings (including a few bombs that actually went off) for which historian believe anarchists were almost certainly responsible. Those bombs were acts of violent revenge against the American political, economic and judicial system that had targeted the movement's leaders during World war I, shut down its publications, and deported high-profile spokesmen such as Emma Goldman and Luigi Galleani.
            Much as acts of terrorism do today, the bombings scared Americans, a fear whipped up by newspapers and politicians into an all-pervading threat that justified the targeting of ethnic minorities perceived to be "others" and hostile to the political status quo.
            But Sacco and Vanzetti were not being tried for bombings. No one was ever put on trial for the bombings that so terrified Americans during the Red Scare of 1918-19. They were arrested without any evidence to connect them to the Braintree robbery-murder; but simply because a local police chief believed the crime must be the work of the political radicals he hated. Once it became known in the Dedham courtroom where they were being tried in 1921 that they were anarchists, nothing else really mattered.
            "The trial was about anarchists," said author Bruce Watson (his book "Sacco and Vanzetti: The men, the murders, and the judgment of mankind" was published in 2007). "And Italian anarchists made it all the better."
            Watson also describes how Vanzetti, the more "cerebral" of the defendants, put this case in his address to the court before sentencing. While denying any guilt for the crime for which he was tried, Vanzetti stated, " conviction is I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian and indeed I am an Italian...[yet] if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already."  
            "The Italian Americans" makes a final connection between the anti-immigrant (and anti-Italian) racism that condemned Sacco and Vanzetti by pointing out that in 1924 Calvin Coolidge signed a law setting a quota specifically for Italian immigrants.
            At the signing Coolidge said, "It is clear that certain groups of people will not mix or blend."
            As the whole of "The Italian Americans" demonstrates, it is hard to imagine a more erroneous, short-sighted (and bigoted) prediction.
            Yet it seems to me that similar things are being said about other groups today.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Garden of Images that Endure in the Mind: Word Pictures in January's Verse-Virtual

             Some of the great word pictures offered us by poets in the January issue of Verse-Virtual make me think of the old Reader's Digest encouragement "Toward more picturesque speech."
In his poem "Continental Drift," John Kropf's cleverly written and sharp-eyed depiction of the big players in the dance of the continents includes this take on "rough and ready" North America
"cracking the whip of his Aleutian braid
and coiling the overgrown prehensile tail
of Mexico in the warm waters below..."
I definitely get the picture from this poem. 

Stuart Kurtz takes on a phenomenon many of us (such as me) may never have heard of, the "Dazzle Ship": ship hulls painted in camouflage designs to confuse an enemy. His poem imagines opportunities for painters such as "Arrangement in Grey and Grey, No. 1,
Commandeered by Whistler and his mother."
              And ahoy there, here’s the U.S.S. Narkeeta sailing by with "blips" and "dots" favored by the pointilist Seurat.

Frederick Pollack offers us sharp commentary and elegant phrasing in poems such as this month's "Line from Orwell" -- and also, contra the golden-oldie pop song, a rose garden.
The poet recalls a youthful walk in a rose garden sustained by "rich ladies," discovering
" an adult enjoys,
coolly, on a hazy summer day,
the soft toys
of others"
before concluding his poem with that borrowed line from Orwell, both for its ironic commentary on what goes before and for its still remarkable self. Go read the poem [], I won't spoil the impact here.

Lex Runciman's " Lace, Red Cup, a Rise of Buttons" provides speech for a great picture. The poem's meditation on this work gets so far inside the painter Vasquez's head that when he steps outside to look at the stars in the pre-dawn sky, we are led unobtrusively to share his thoughts: 
"lead white, he thinks, azurite blue."

Kenneth Salzmann's "1969" -- a poem that begins 
"If fifty thousand candles can be
the waxy, whispered remains of dead boys
in a cold, November rain..." 
-- may not paint a pretty picture, but it draws a powerful meaning from its Arlington National Cemetery setting. And the poem is beautifully crafted around syntactically paired conditional clauses.

Trish Hopkinson's poem "Dis-ease" -- its title depicted in lines such as "we wait... with wet
and tilting eyes, with steaming breath, with chests
collapsing, lifting, in apprehension" -- is enhanced by her son's drawing of a bent figure whose life is draining out of him. It's the key in the figure's back, suggesting the time limit on bodily health, that gets to me.

And Neil Ellman's poems attempt the challenge of finding human words for abstract pictures. In the poem "Green Un-Square Twist" on a work by painter Ron Davis, the poet delves into an image of a three-dimensional "un-circle" around a green center to draw the meaning that we 
"un-human as we are
without a sense
of hope in grass
and trees
see no reason
to evolve."

Happily we see before us many reasons to believe that V-V's poets are continuing to evolve. 
(See these poems and many others at

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Garden of Cultural Cachet: Turandot, a fairy tale night at the opera

        I've long thought this opera has a fairy tale plot. So I was happy to find a reviewer of the Metropolitan Opera's current production of "Turandot" who agreed with me, calling it a fairy tale with a dark secret at the center.
            Many folk tales have the notion of fatal choice -- the lady or the tiger -- on which both your happiness and your future hang. In some mythical long ago Chinese empire, the emperor's daughter, the Princess Turandot, has placed her suitors in this interesting, high-risk position: you either win your suit or have your head cut off. The way you win is by answering three riddles correctly. It's like being granted three death-wishes. You know you're in a fairy tale world when everything comes in threes.
            As a dynastic marriage strategy goes, a riddle contest is ridiculous. The only suitors with a chance would be Jeopardy contestant types. Instead, "Turandot" gives us traditional hopefuls such as the Prince of Persia, who sure enough fails the test and for whose ritualized execution the whole city of Peking watching as the first act gets underway.
            Comparison to the plot of "Frozen" can also be made. Turandot is an ice maiden, afraid of her own power, though in this case that power turns out to be the ordinary magic of love and passion. The true challenge our hero has to face (after answering the riddles) is to melt the ice, break the dam, let the natural emotion flow. Our heroic tenor, called Calaf, not only has to play her game, he has to win her love.  
            All I can say, after laying out this fantastical plot is that the music, singing, and dramatic intensity maintained at an operatic fever pitch (with only rare comic releases) makes this Puccini opera one of the most compelling theatrical experiences of any sort that I've experienced. I've seen it before -- but not at the Met.  
            Going to the Metropolitan Opera is not something we get to do often; that's one of the reasons we went. The other is I wanted to see a Turandot at the Met. (La Boehme and some other classics were also being offered this year: meat for the Puccini lover's soul.) The experience did not disappoint. The house was full, the kind of special excitement you seek from a special night was in the air; the Lincoln Center opera house with its plunging vertical architecture, glass walls, and giant chandeliers hanging like diamond necklace draped on the throat of heaven (or on Aphrodite or Andromeda of some other constellated divinity), still holds its visual and atmospheric magic. It was also heartening to find that the crowd consisted not only of the typical aging classical music demographic, but also young couples, married, dating, shacked up, whatever, and groups of friends. No obvious riddles were being posed.
            Since the Met needs a reason to revive classic operas, even those with the popularity and prestige of Puccini's, the production we saw was originally designed by Franco Zeffirelli 30 years ago. The sets were dazzling, literally. So much light was poured on and poured of the silvery imperial court of the second act you almost had to squint to keep your eyes glued to the stage where the riddling contest takes place... after the emperor himself tries in vain to dissuade Calaf from going through with his challenge.
            The downside of a Zeffirelli set design is the thirty-five minute intermission between acts, accompanied by a behind-the-curtain score of carpenters knocking down one version of imperial China and building up a new one.
            It's hard to convey what makes all this work, as it so devastatingly does for those of us who eat it up. I lack the background to describe how the composer's music manages to sound, or rather feel, Chinese without imitating any Asian melodies, and yet still flow from the expanded orchestra like the lushly late romantic bel canto opera it is. It's a music that keeps the cherry trees, pagodas and pristine mountain lakes of its fantasy world in view, while filling the stage-side table with red wine, fettucini, and bellissima.
            Some of the opera's musical high points flow from character development beyond its fairy tale plot. The second soprano role, the peasant girl Liu, explains to Calaf that she has cared for his aging exiled father (like Antigone leading blinded Oedipus from cursed Thebes) because "seigneur, you looked at me once." The evening's first show-stopping aria: Anita Hartig's performance was majorly heart-breaking: pause for lusty group opera-scream. Calaf, blinded by Turandot, is not looking at her now. Still, in what to my ears is an equally moving aria (possibly the most sorrowfully moving proud-man music in the whole Puccini repertoire) he begs Liu to continue caring for his poor last-legs father, if she can possibly bear to, to ease the burden "of one who no longer smiles."
            This is a stop and beat your breast moment as well, but most productions play right through it, as did this one.
            Then we have Liu's two third-act high self-abegnation arias, almost back to back, first in response to Turandot's demand to know how she can bear the suffering in behalf of Calaf. They are torturing her for his secret. The answer, she tells the princess, in a yet another plot pre-figuration, is love. Then her death song (after stabbing herself to keep from spilling Calaf's secret),  followed immediately by Calaf's too-little, too-late lamentation, which is still a heart-grabber in a lower-key funereal tone perfectly judged for effect.
            The character of Liu soaks up the story's pathos, and it's almost hard to see how Turandot can reclaim center stage until Liu leaves it by dying. She's the morally deserving lady. Turandot is a monster, though soprano Nina Stemme humanizes her by a powerful, emotionally convincing performance of her twisted post-traumatic suffering from her country's long-ago conquest and the rape-murder of an ancestral queen. 
             Liu's death at the hands of Turandot's psychosis gives Calaf the psychological power to confront her. "Principessa del morte," he names her accusingly.Turando melts, as the plot requires. We all celebrate the happy ending, all of China, the princess's beleguered emperor-father, the relieved courtiers. After all, they can stop beheading royal suitors. Turandot has surrendered to love.
            I've surrendered to the music. We're left with the show's majestic celestial-salute-theme to the emperor, heaven's son, music more transcendent than any mortal monarch ever deserved.
            I bestow it on the Met. And on Puccini.