Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is exquisitely written and filled with poignant truths. Here’s one concerning the resentment of children toward dutiful parents:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her. (p. 22 of 1963 Dial Press edition)

Here’s one concerning the resentment of wives toward dutiful husbands:

Sometimes it occurred to him to do the Saturday shopping on his way home, so that she would not have to do it; in which case he would buy a turkey, the biggest and the most expensive he could find, and several pounds of coffee, it being his belief that there was never enough in the house, and enough breakfast cereal to feed an army for a month. Such foresight always filled him with such a sense of his own virtue….She would sit in the kitchen, cold with rage and staring at the turkey, which, since Frank always bought them unplucked and with the head on, would cost her hours of exasperating, bloody labor. (pp. 93-94)

Upon the whole, though, the book is dominated by the binary relationship between sin and salvation. “‘You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.’” (p. 25) Somewhat monotonously, few characters in the book do know better than that. The existence of a third way is hinted at very occasionally, as in “Perhaps his life had been wicked, but he had been very good to her” (p. 177); but Baldwin never suffers his characters to elaborate upon it, nor does he ever do so as narrator, for the result, no doubt, would be didactic. Rather, Baldwin lets the binary stand, leaving it to the reader to lament.

Even if the fork in the road offers only two choices, one path should lead to redemption…shouldn’t it?

What I’m Working On

My current book project is a little hard to explain, but I’ll try:

  1. I translated a seventeenth-century Chinese text, a detailed account of a tedious political imbroglio, into English.
  2. I extracted an intriguing subplot concerning a despicable family, resulting in a snappy 6000-word text.
  3. I transplanted the setting to contemporary Baltimore. My impulse was threefold:
    • Chinese settings seem to discourage would-be readers, and Baltimore may prove more accessible;
    • Chinese names are especially off-putting to would-be readers, so  rendering Zhang Qi as Tinus Juckman, Gu Xiangtai as Morgan Schwartzenberg, and Chen Luqian as Ruckleshaus Schumacher will hopefully yield more memorable characters;
    • Transplanting Chinese institutions such as eunuchs and public floggings to Baltimore produces a keen jarring effect.
  4. For fuller length and depth (and for the challenge) I am now employing an Oulipo method called larding, which means inserting one new sentence between every two sentences of a given text. The baseline translated/edited/transplanted 6000-word text has, as of this posting, been subjected to almost two full rounds of larding and currently stands at 22,000 words. I plan to lard it a total of three times.

I call it Meet Me at the RASCAL. Here is a choice sentence: “Tinka Klein and an oud player named Ashurbanipal, both naked and dreadlocked to the pubes, leapt back and forth between the modules of Goldie’s Italian leather sofa, trying to avoid collateral damage.”

Book Review: Abigail, by Magda Szabó

The passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by an exchange of cares from the petty to the existential. A certain reorientation of perspective occurs as well: The child lives inside her petty cares; the adult views her existential ones from a certain sensible distance.

In Magda Szabó’s Abigail, Georgina Vitay must make the transition all at once, at the command of her father, the General: “From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands.” (p. 121)

It is war, of course, that forces the General’s hand and compresses Gina’s adolescence into a moment. Instantly, her involvement in the world of schoolgirl pranks and grudges is ended, replaced by a series of life-or-death crises. She is now “the new Gina” (p. 126), and her transformation is noted frequently thereafter in such sentences as “They could not shake off the impression that she was playing with them…playing the way an adult does when joining in with the children.” (p. 134)

World War Two has become such a common setting for coming of age books and films that I wonder how anyone has been able to grow up since 1945. Maybe we haven’t. At any rate, Abigail is not only superlative in the subgenre but is a gem in its own right.

Book Review: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter narrates the epic romance of a serious woman and an unserious man. The latter is just serious enough to resent the former’s resentment of his unseriousness, resulting in the main crises of the storyline.

One such crisis produces the following masterpiece of hurt:

Certainly she had been wrong many times before, and in anger she had often spoken mean and vile words to her husband. But what offended her most bitterly was that Erland would never offer to forget and forgive unless she first humbled herself and asked him meekly to do so. She didn’t think she had let her temper get the better of her very often; couldn’t he see that it was usually when she was tired and worn out with sorrows and anguish, which she had tried to bear alone? That was when she could easily lose mastery over her feelings. (p. 864)

Here is my favorite sentence:

Each time she glanced over at him she would lower her gaze, overwhelmed, when she saw in Erland’s face how young she was. (p. 922)

There’s also a lot of religious stuff.

The pacing undulates, which is perhaps inevitable in such a long book. Engaging episodes punctuate long spells of reflection.

Book Review: Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a portrait of slavery and its aftermath in mid-19th century America. It focuses on two protagonists of mixed race, the mother and daughter Marie and Iola Leroy, to illustrate the absurdity of American slavery: One moment, the two light-skinned women are paragons of gentility – with Iola going so far as to defend slavery at her Northern girls’ school – the next moment, they are slaves.

Covering the Civil War and emancipation, Iola Leroy is an inspiring story of liberation. As Harper narrates, “The lost cause went down in blood and tears, and on the brows of a ransomed people God poured the chrism of a new era, and they stood a race newly anointed with freedom.” (p. 138)

As one of Harper’s characters recounts:

‘When de war war ober an’ de sogers war still stopping’ yere, I made pies an’ cakes, sole em to de sogers, an’ jist made money han’ ober fist. An’ I kep’ on a workin’ an’ a savin’ till my ole man got back from de war wid his wages and his bounty money. I felt right set up an’ mighty big wen we counted all dat money. We had neber seen so much money in our lives befo’, let alone hab it fer ourselbes. An’ I sez, “John, you take dis money an’ git a nice place wid it.”’

(In fact, Aunt Linda and husband John do manage to buy a plot of land from some friendly Jews.) (pp. 154-155)

A third observer is “delighted at the thrift and industry” well in evidence in the postbellum South, as its people taste their first draft of freedom. (p. 153)

However, even as the freedmen adapt to liberty with manifest “thrift and industry,” Harper’s more elite protagonists remain convinced of their need for shepherding. At a meeting of self-appointed black leaders, described in the chapter called “Friends in Council,” one speaker laments “‘the fearful grinding and friction which comes in the course of an adjustment of the new machinery of freedom in the old ruts of slavery.’” (p. 255) Another poetizes, “‘Oh, children of the tropics, / Amid our pain and wrong / Have you no other mission / Than music, dance, and song? / When through the weary ages / Our dripping tears still fall, / Is this a time to dally / With pleasure’s silken thrall?’” (pp. 251-252) Discussing the possibility of freedmen emigration, yet another speaker warns against “‘emptying on the shores of Africa a horde of ignorant, poverty-stricken people.’” (pp. 246-247) More than one participant at the meeting voices alarm at the freedmen’s susceptibility to drink, an ironic echo of the argument against black enfranchisement then being made by the unreconstructed.

Naturally, these intellectuals see themselves as the rectifiers of their people’s supposed defects. “‘I do not think,’” says one, “‘that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant.’” Iola agrees: “‘We must instill into our young people that the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.’” (pp. 253-254) Another concerned person characterizes this civilizing we as “‘a union of women with the warmest hearts and clearest brains to help in the moral education of the race.’” (p. 254) This note of paternalism (or maternalism) is sounded with breathtaking self-confidence and presumption, in ways that harken (again, ironically) to the old paternalism of the planters.

It is the opinion of the reviewer that the new birth of freedom in the mid-19th century, which affected not only America but also such places as Russia (where serfs were emancipated in 1861), inspired great panic on the part of the elite. On the one hand, deposed masters such as the gentry of the American South contrived to recover their position. On the other hand, intellectuals, often the same people who had welcomed servile emancipation, now regarded the newly liberated masses (or newly enfranchised masses like Irish immigrants) as unfit for self-rule. They either looked the other way when the aristos returned to power or, more adventurously, sought to take the aristos’ places under the guise of enlightened (or even revolutionary) leadership.

Iola Leroy is a case study of this latter approach. Civil War liberation epic that it is, Harper’s novel actually becomes rather preoccupied with the reimposition of hierarchy; it is more representative of the thermidorian reaction of the postbellum Reconstruction or Gilded Age years, when new elites sought to supplant old. The book was published in 1892. Significantly, one of its characters, during the above-mentioned friendly council, takes stock of the recent years’ broken chains in a somewhat dispirited way (““Millions of slaves and serfs have been liberated during this century, but not even in semi-barbaric Russia, heathen Japan, or Catholic Spain has slavery been abolished through such a fearful conflict as it was in the United States.’”) before turning his attention to alcohol (“‘The liquor traffic still sends its floods of ruin and shame to the habitations of men.’”), implying that the freedman remains in a degraded state, from which only a redoubled effort, no doubt by those with the warmest hearts and clearest brains, can redeem him (for as yet “‘no political party has been found with enough moral power and numerical strength to stay the tide of death.’”). (p. 250) The reader will have noted that ordinary freedmen are shown by Harper to speak in dialect, while their aspiring redeemers orate in formal English, as though the author were suggesting almost-organic differences between them, justifying the need for guidance.

Even before the friendly council, Harper’s heroine aspires to fill the need. She hopes, in plain language, to become a teacher, but she spreads her enthusiasm a bit thick:

‘To be,’ continued Iola, ‘the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment.’ (p. 219)

In fact, Iola feels well qualified for the role. “‘I should be very glad to have an opportunity to teach,’ said Iola. ‘I used to be a great favorite among the colored children on my father’s plantation.’” (p. 145)

Thus does yesterday’s mistress become today’s missionary, retaining her seat at the head of her constituency, with the relation of superior to subordinate preserved.

Book Review: Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, by Ward Farnsworth

The main argument made in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is that good writing involves the balancing of contrasts. Many of these contrasts are rhythmic, and one good way to vary rhythmic flow, treated extensively in the first part of Farnsworth’s book, is to set off polysyllabic Latinate words from monosyllabic Saxon ones. Other contrasts that distinguish good writing are those between abstract and concrete imagery and front-loaded and back-loaded sentences. Farnsworth’s general watchword, however, is variation.  

This stress on ebb and flow as a hallmark of good prose counts as a rebuke to the modern arbiters of style who have instilled in recent generations of writers the imperative always to compress and economize. While efficiency in writing is certainly an object, Farnsworth argues, it should not be pursued to monotonous extremes. Doing so, he laments, is like removing some of the instruments – long words, long sentences, and formal language – from the orchestra a writer conducts, altogether a “rhetorical misfortune.” (pp. xiv-xv) In another musical simile, Farnsworth asserts that “skilled writers, like musicians, don’t always play at the same speed.” (p. 12) Summing up the rule of variation, Farnsworth notes:

Good writing has variety in the sounds that it makes, in whether it is more or less refined, in whether it is abstract or concrete, and in whether it appeals to the heart or mind. All those variations create rhetorical energy that can be put to various uses, as by enabling a writing or a speech to convince, inspire, or scathe. (p. 12)

As easily as I’m convinced by Farnsworth’s argument, and as illuminating as I find his book, I am almost sorry I read it. To maintain the musical analogy: We should simply recall the words of Duke Ellington – “If it sounds good, it is good” – and be confident that the goodness of a piece of writing is self-evident. I would hate to lose my instinct for a pleasing cadence while self-consciously debating between the anapestic and the dactylic. I guess the important thing is to be clear about how the book is to be used (maybe “approached” would have been a better word). Farnsworth’s is a pleasure to read, and the examples of good writing it provides may establish themselves in the reader’s mind in such a way as to inform, subliminally, his choices as a writer; but its terminologies, while helpful for purposes of discussion, will be of no aid to creativity. “If I Fell” is a catchy Beatles song, in part because of the tritone substitution in its intro, but John Lennon didn’t necessarily know what a tritone substitution was, much less read about it in a reference book and decide to write a song with one. Such a notion is – how should I put it? – risible, nonsensical, horseshit.  (I wanted a parenthetical interrupter with a strong Saxon finish.)

This is a good book.

Book Review: A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

As is known, Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights that takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, triangulating on the character of Taro Azuma, the racially impure pauper who makes the best of the various table scraps the world throws to him and becomes a millionaire. As such, it illustrates the triumph of the middle class over residual aristocracy, a theme that is developed on other levels as well, outside the main storyline. Secondarily, it draws attention to the process of novelization itself by, among other things, impugning the reliability of the chief narrator.

I loved losing myself in A True Novel’s 854 pages and seldom put it down. The pace does drag in one or two of the middle chapters, which provide the background of the aforesaid chief narrator, but it picks up again.

The cover blurb promises “an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class,” although its treatment of westernization is muted (it is more explicit in Mizumara’s Inheritance from Mother) and its depiction of the middle class, while not exactly triumphalist, is certainly not an indictment. In this respect, A True Novel is representative of postwar Japanese literature in its mostly happy adjustment with bourgeois, middle class life. The sense of angst and malaise, the criticism and satire that would accompany any American novel set in the middle class, is entirely absent. While A True Novel makes ample mention of squalor, failed marriages, and office drudgery, these occurrences never warrant a rejection of the bourgeois ethos in toto; no alternatives are considered. When its characters enter a hotel, restaurant, bookstore, or supermarket, they are comfortable in such places and participate unselfconsciously in the consumption that occurs therein. They refrain from mocking the decor or caricaturing the clientele, activities de rigueur in America. In short, these bourgeois settings are not enemy territory, through which its unassimilated characters trespass.

The lack of any snark directed toward the middle class may be explained by the simple fact that most Japanese are pleased to identify themselves as members of it. (For that matter, Japan’s racial and cultural homogeneity also ensures that the ethnic, religious, political, and cultural strife that dominates American novels has no parallel in Japanese ones.) In fact, A True Novel may be read as a middle-class epic, with Taro Azuma as its hero.

But does Taro find love? And if he does, is it of the aristocratic or the bourgeois kind?

The answer, of course, would be a spoiler.  

Mind Trails

At the school I attended from pre-k through fifth grade was a wooded area with a network of nature trails where my teachers would often take us for walks. As a small boy, I marveled at the woods’ vastness, and since my classmates and I were always chaperoned, I never learned to navigate the trails on my own. Over the years, I grew familiar with certain features of the woods – a stream, a gully with planked steps going down one side and up the other, various pieces of Outward Bound equipment such as a balance beam and a climbing wall – but having never internalized the trail system, I never knew exactly where in the woods these features were located. Rather, I always came across them by chance, over and over again, as if for the first time. Even in later years, revisiting the forest as an adult and realizing that it cannot be as big and boundless as it seemed to me as a child, I found myself still unable to conjure a corresponding mental layout of it, to reduce even its diminished vastness to something defined and navigable. And so I rediscovered anew the moss-covered boulder, the swallows’ nest, and the cargo net. “Oh, I remember this,” I would say; but the memory was connected with the place only when I was at the place. At all other times, it was locationless, a thing that existed only in my mind, with no set position in the actual world.

At the school where I now teach in my fifties, there is also a system of trails in the woods. Aerial maps of the entire network are placed wherever two paths intersect, and it is easy for me to guide myself along the well-marked routes. However, I still cannot recall exactly where in that little world certain interesting things are. My favorite stretch of pathway is a sunken trail, with a foot or so of sand wall on either side; but it is unmarked on the signage and unfixed in my mind. I could not find it if I had to but am always pleased to see it open before me. The other day I took this picture of a giant mushroom, yet where it stands I cannot recall. It exists not in a definite place but only in my memory. Perhaps I will rediscover it on a future hike. Perhaps I won’t.

I feel like a knight on an Arthurian quest, advancing through a mysterious country, searching for whatever fate may place in my way.  

Book Review: The Third Son, by Julie Wu

Julie Wu’s The Third Son is economically written, powerful, and unsentimental. The latter virtue keeps it well clear of the saccharine exoticism that taints many depictions of Asia, particularly of Asian family life. The protagonist, Saburo (a Japanese name often given to third sons), is low in his family’s hierarchy and is treated appallingly by his parents and oldest brother.

The story includes a superlative panorama of Taiwanese history of the mid-twentieth-century and would make an excellent college-course reading-list adoption for this reason; yet only its first part is set in Taiwan, for Saburo makes his bid to escape his dim prospects via higher education in America. The novel’s subject thus changes from Taiwan to the Taiwanese diaspora.

The Third Son is therefore a freedom story, and America is depicted as the promised land of Saburo’s salvation; yet America too is shown warts and all, its promise offering Saburo only a toehold, which he must struggle to maintain and improve. There is little sense in this book of a culture clash between the old world and the new. A fine rebuke to coercive tradition is indeed delivered by an American, as in: “‘Filial piety,’ I [Saburo] said. ‘You Americans obviously don’t know anything about it.’ ‘We do,’ he said, “and we reject it.’” [p. 184] However, the urge to escape to the US is implanted by a cousin back on Taiwan, who calls America “‘a country founded on principles, on personal freedom’” [p. 24] and who later advises Saburo, “‘You have only one life. Fight for it.’” [p. 79] Both Taiwan and America exhibit similar patterns of corruption and institutional hindrance, which Saburo must overcome. (An America that brings out the best in people by constantly challenging them is a strange sort of paradise.) It is in America, however, that Saburo is (nearly) free from the wanton meanness of his kindred, and it is on that freedom that he pins his hopes.

The Third Son is fast-moving and compelling. The reader will not be able to put it down.