Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Ngozi Adichi, Emma Smith, and Marilynne Robinson

Well, it was nearly curtains for this blog.  When I went to start this post, the 'revert to legacy blogger' link had disappeared, and the new Blogger interface doesn't seem to work for me at all - it gives me no way to add either images or text (just a title).  Come on Blogger - sort it out.

Half of A Yellow Sun, by Ngozi Adichie.

Years ago, I read Wild Swans, by Jung Chang.  I finished it quite incredulous that something so enormous could have happened without my knowing antthing about it.  Not that I hadn’t heard of the Communist Revolution in China, but I was completely unaware of what it involved for ordinary people.  I remember saying to my mother, ‘it was terrible thing: they starved’, and she was like, ‘no.  They didn’t’.  Then she read the book: ‘Oh, yes they did.’

I felt much the same after reading this book.  I suppose I am aware that Africa has seen a lot of violence and civil war – and that it is, in large part, an inheritance of white colonial rule, specifically that of the British – but I don’t know anything at all about Nigeria.  This is a work of fiction, but it’s based in the real events of the Nigerian civil war.  I spent most of the book thinking that Biafra was a fictional construct…  It’s ridiculous really, what I didn’t know.

So this starts off as a story about a group of people – based around twin sisters, Olanna and the rather cooler, Kainene.  Don’t read anything into the ‘twin’ bit: it’s not a book which plays two sisters off against each other.   It was another book on which I made no notes at all: I can’t say I liked the sisters at all times, but I was completely drawn in by the story. 

Anyway, on the political front, Nigeria is described as a country put together by the British, who encourage distrust and discontent between the different groups subsumed within it on a sort of ‘divide and rule’ basis.  At one point, Nigerians in the North suddenly start attacking one particular group – the Igbo – even where these people are their neighbours and friends.  In response to this, the predominantly Igbo area in the east of Nigeria breaks away, and forms a separatist state – Biafra.  The Nigerians try to bring them back, hence the civil war, eventually won by the Nigerians.

The books starts off describing the lives and relationships of these sisters but becomes a very tense, in-depth account of what happens to them throughout the war.  They come from an upper middle class family (a group I seem to have read a lot about lately) but it doesn’t protect them against what are effectively racist attacks.  I’d highly recommend it as an informative book about Nigeria, but actually, I liked the way Adichie writes about people too – particularly women.  It’s not, topically, a feminist book, but her female protagonists are far from being stereotypes.  She has written two nonfiction books – Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions and We Should All Be Feminists – both of which I would like to read.

This is Shakespeare: How to Read the World’s Greatest Playwright, by Emma Smith.

I heard this recommended by Val McDermid on Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’.  It was interesting.  I think perhaps I haven’t read enough literary criticism to be able to appreciate it properly – and perhaps, I haven’t seen enough of Shakespeare’s plays.  Having said that, some of the chapters I most enjoyed concerned those plays I haven’t seen, or can barely remember.  For example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (with the discovery of one school party that actually, this isn’t really a play for children); and 1 Henry IV (I’ve heard of Falstaff lots of times before but never knew where he came from); Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure (in both of which, Shakespeare seems to have something interesting to say about women); Anthony and Cleopatra (with moments of comedy amid the tragedy); and Coriolanus (‘Shakespeare’s terrifying depiction of a hero so battle-hardened that he can scarcely operate in civilian society’ (p.271) – although it sounds like that description might be more exciting than the play itself).

I liked the fact that Smith pays particular attention to the contemporary circumstances in which the plays were written and performed.  She says for example, on p.69-70, that to contemporary audiences, originality in a play wasn’t necessarily a good thing; indeed, they might have been quite suspicious of such.  Rather, people valued the rewriting and reworking of stories, and liked to be able to recognize similarities to other plays.  In another example, in her discussion of Anthony and Cleopatra, she points out that Cleopatra has a line where she bemoans the fact that she might be represented in a play in the future by a boy – ‘I shall see some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness I’th’ posture of a whore’ (p.261) – whereas, in fact, in Shakespeare’s era, Cleopatra would have been played by a man, as would all the roles.  Presumably this would have invoked a slightly more humorous reaction than many modern performances.

In other ways too, the book provided different perspectives on the plays.  In her analysis of, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, she suggests we have ‘neutered a much darker, sexier play’.  Of Titania and Bottom – the guy with the ass’s head, she says ‘Titania instructs her fairies… “lead him to my bower”… So she can stroke his ears?  Come off it!’ (p.90).  I think I probably saw one of the ‘schoolroom versions’ of this play when I was younger – I remember a local, open-air production – but I don’t recall finding it shocking.  It was clearly just two people, one of them wearing a paper mache donkey’s head.  (A failure of imagination on my part, perhaps, but I was only about ten years old.)

So too, she talks about different versions of Macbeth and how, in Shakespeare’s original source material (collected by Raphael Hollinshed in 1578), the story depicts a rough world where Duncan gains the throne by violence, and Macbeth effectively does the same – and, is in fact, a good king himself until he too is deposed by someone else.  There is apparently a modern television adaption of the play from 1997, ‘Macbeth on the Estate’, which shows the story from this point of view.  Shakespeare himself though, says Smith, was required to show respect for King James I and the hereditary monarchy, and so may well have been constrained from depicting such a dog-eat-dog system.  (p.245-6)

So yes – interesting, and funny, and informative – and a prod to go and see more of Shakespeare’s plays, although there’s a fat chance right now.

(P.S.  And although it is supposed to apply especially to literature, I can think of many occasions when the word ‘bathos’ would have been particularly apt and useful, had I known it before now: ‘an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.’)

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

I enjoyed this.  In some ways it’s quite a gentle book, narrated by an old man, a preacher, much given to abstract contemplation.  On the other hand, it did build up quite an air of menace somewhere in the middle.  Be warned, if you haven't read this book and are planning to, you might not want to read this yet (spoiler alert).

The book is written in the form of a letter that the narrator writes to his young son.  They live in the town of Gilead, somewhere in the American mid-west (Iowa?) on the edge of the prairie.  The narrator’s father and grandfather were preachers in the same town before him, and the town itself has a distinctive history.  It was, in origin, an abolitionist town, assisting people fleeing slavery.  The narrator’s grandfather fought in the Civil War and,  at its height, preached in a bloodstained shirt with a pistol in his belt.  At any rate, evidently things changed.  At some point, someone started a fire at the Negro church, and the black population gradually left.  The narrator regrets this, but does not make much of it (just a small fire); but it comes to seem more significant later on.

Anyway, much is made of the narrator’s history in the area.  Then Jack, the son of his best friend – a man he grew up with – returns home.  He’s a sardonic, almost malign, character.  He hangs around the narrator’s wife – who is much younger than the narrator; closer to Jack’s age – and the narrator, although clearly troubled by this in some way, just seems too old and tired to be able to address the issue. There’s a long build up where he makes passing references to something unpleasant Jack once did, and wonders whether he should speak to his wife about it, and warn her of what this young man is capable.

Eventually it transpires that he once got a girl pregnant.  She was obviously quite young (at one point, the narrator describes her and her baby daughter as two children) but there is a disconcerting (but probably historically accurate), lack of emphasis on her age.  Everyone was much more concerned by the fact that she was 'from the wrong side of the tracks'.

Although a difficult situation, this doesn’t seem particularly unusual – but the sense of menace continues to develop.  The way that Jack keeps coming round to the narrator’s house; the way he calls him ‘papa’; the way he sits next to the narrator’s wife in the congregation and smiles at him while he’s preaching; the stories about the pranks and minor thefts he apparently committed against the narrator as a boy – these all make it sound as if there is some particular resentment between the two of them that the narrator does not quite perceive.

At any rate, there is a denouement of sorts, a final reckoning between them which seems redemptive for the narrator himself, but at this point, the focus of the story shifted slightly for me: it became about Jack himself – growing up as a misfit in what had clearly – from revolutionary roots – become a conservative, and heavily religious, town.  His early, troubled years tell on him, and he never quite manages to find his way.  Indeed, by the end of the book, although the narrator finds some level of peace, Jack is still caught in the middle of a nightmare.  As a reader, you are sort of insulated from this though, because you are obviously tied to the narrator.

I found it quite a picturesque book.  Both this and Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping, have a very strong sense of the vastness and wildness of large parts of America – not wild meaning 'unpopulated', necessarily, but rather in the sense of communities being isolated and therefore unaccountable for their own prejudices and peculiaries.

It is quite thoughtful too.  The narrator is old, and contemplative – having spend much of his life writing heart-felt sermons – and well-read.  For example, he recommends Ludwig Feuerbach (see The Essence of Christianity) on the subject of joy and (like Kate Atkinson) is a fan of John Donne.  On p.166, he writes – in a sentence which seems to be true not just of faith, but of other ways of understanding too – that ‘people of any degree of religious sensitivity are always vulnerable to the accusation that their consciousness or their understanding does not attain to the highest standards of faith, because that is always true of everyone.  St Paul is eloquent on this subject.’  I did laugh when he spoke about waltzing, with his heart condition, and said ‘I have thought I might have a book ready at hand to clutch if I begin to experience unusual pain, so that it would have an especial recommendation from being found in my hands.  That seemed theatrical, on consideration, and it might have the perverse effect of burdening the book with unpleasant association.’ (p.131)

It struck me, reading this, that one of the things that used to put me off novels (I spent a good ten years reading no fiction at all) was a dislike of finding myself with an unreliable protagonist – one who was implicated in the drama, but unable to see this; giving his own side of the story, when the truth was rather different.  Studying history, as I did, complicates this way of thinking by emphasizing that everything is subjective and political.  And I think depression, anxiety, those kinds of problems, make it personal again: one comes to feel as though your own subjectivity disbars you from seeing things the way everyone else sees them.  

I thought that what made the protagonist’s subjectivity bearable in this case was, firstly, that the drama through the central part of the novel turns out to be a massive misdirection, and the protagonist’s peculiar culpability illusory.  Secondly, being old and thoughtful, he does not respond, except in private print, to the sense of threat he feels from Jack, so the misconception does minimal damage.

Is this important?  To me, I think yes.  The character of the protagonist manages to be both troublesomely subjective and also very balanced and patient – outwardly objective, you might say – at the same time, which I found that quite reassuring.

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