Book Review: Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, by William Grimes

This book makes it clear, for anyone who needed to be convinced in the early 1800s, that slavery was cruel and violent, for Mr Grimes is repeatedly beaten, mostly for offences he didn’t commit, as his word is routinely disbelieved by his oppressors. It also proves that slavery was a poor way to maintain the purity of the races, were that an object, because Grimes himself was born of a slave mother and a white father.

A few other things stand out. First, whenever wages are mentioned, they often seem to have been higher in the unfree South than in the free North — but then again, it is unclear how much Grimes’s masters deduct for letting him out to work for wages. After escaping to the North, it seems that Grimes is scrambling to work for less money — but then again, he is able to amass a four-figure savings. Second, although he changes masters at least ten times while a slave, the white people involved usually ask his approval for each transaction; I can’t recall if he ever withholds it. On one occasion, he asks to be sold, and his master is offended and angry but complies. Third, after reaching the North, Grimes seems constantly to be in court, to claim wages, to clear himself of libel, and otherwise to gain redress against people who misuse him. The litigiousness of life in Connecticut, and Grimes’s ability to avail himself of the courts, is striking.

The writing is pithy. In a preamble addressed “To the Public,” Grimes asserts that “The condition of the slave…is painful and unfortunate and will excite the sympathy of all who have any.” (29) Toward the end, Grimes attempts to deal with slavery in the abstract, starting with the question of comfort in bondage vs. desperation in freedom: “To say that a man is better off in one situation than another, if in the one he is better clothed and better fed, and has less care than in the other, is false. It is true, if you regard him as a brute, as destitute of the feeling of human nature.” (101) A few lines later, his position becomes ambiguous: He advises slaves against escaping, for the danger and for the apprehension of recapture (Grimes was finally relieved of the latter, when his last master manumitted him in exchange for most of his accumulated money and property); but he then states that, in spite of being “cheated, insulted, abused, and injured” in the North, he has been able to “get along here as well as anyone who is poor and in a situation to be imposed on.” (101-102)

The integrity of the family seems to fare as badly in freedom as under slavery, for Grimes mentions that his wife joined the gold rush in California, leaving him in Connecticut.

Book Review: Inheritance from Mother, by Minae Mizumura

Inheritance from Mother is a two-part novel: Part I is almost entirely a flashback, describing protagonist Mitsuki’s mother’s prolonged decline and intercutting scenes of their relationship; Part II takes place at a resort hotel, where Mitsuki has gone to figure out what to do about her unhappy marriage (and it also contains many flashbacks). Part II was more pleasant for me to read, since I like hotel settings and internal dialogue in which characters figure out what to do.

The latter part contains one of the best portraits of relationship disappointment I’ve ever read:

As she sang, she felt enveloped in the peculiar bliss of singing – the sense that, at least for that fleeting moment, the world is in harmony.

She was halfway through the first verse when Tetsuo quietly left her side and walked slowly off to the pier.

The ship’s whistle sobbing, a flutter of cherry petals.’ She sang on alone, watching his figure grow smaller.

Why?

That was the first ‘why’ of her married life.

She herself was fond of hearing others sing at the chansonnier. Her past boyfriends had enjoyed hearing her sing. And Tetsuo was her husband – shouldn’t he listen gladly? This precise thoughts had not come to her at the time, but she had felt a voiceless cry tear through her, like an echo from the bottom of a deep well. (275-276)

Like Haruki Murakami, Mizumura includes copious references to Western music and literature, yet she also, without becoming nativist or reactionary, expresses resentment at the general degradation and sense of trauma that has accompanied Westernization.

Of course, culture flows both ways, and for every Mizumura character reading Madame Bovary, there is a Westerner like me reading Mizumura. On the subject of world literature, it seems to me that Japanese writers best capture the essence of modern bourgeois life: culturally amalgamated, materialist, and reflective, if not spiritual. Perhaps I am reading different literatures in search of different facets of the human experience in time. If Japanese novels are the best representations of the present, it is in European (especially Hungarian) literature that I find the most homesick remembrances of the past. American literature is where I turn for liberating visions of the future – which seem, ironically, to have been most vivid in the past.

(Maybe this last observation explains why I set my great American novel in seventeenth-century China.) At any rate, I will enjoy reading all of Mizumura’s books.

Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.

Book Review: Hercules, My Shipmate, by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’ book (retitled The Golden Fleece) is an argument for the historicity of the Argonauts’ voyage, as he explains in the afterword. The result is a passable adventure story, with a somewhat two-dimensional portrait of human nature.

Those who urge us to read the Classics claim that they contain valuable lessons on human nature, but I find myself dissatisfied by the limited aspects of human nature that they reveal. In Hercules, My Shipmate (as in The Odyssey, I recall), all the characters seem to be consumed by pride (in many cases simply an obsession with virility bordering on machismo) and divided from each other by religious and cultural differences. Consequently, life is shown to be nasty, brutish, and short, with few exceptions. In other words, the lessons on human nature imparted in classical tales soon become monotonous.

A comparison with Shakespearean tragedy is instructive. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragic flaws are personal. In the Classics, they are cultural. In the first pages of Macbeth, it becomes clear that Macbeth suffers from ambition but that Banquo does not. Macbeth thus stands out. In the Classics, all mankind suffers from ambition, as well as from avarice, machismo, lust, and the whole panoply of vices. Some variation is evident in talent – he’s a good archer and she’s a good runner – but not in morality; and all are equally subject to Fate.

One special observation about Hercules, My Shipmate: Whereas today’s writers are discouraged from including extraneous detail, Graves packs it all in. The following passage is typical:

Then [Hercules] marched against Neleus, the baleful brother of Pelias, who lived at Sandy Pylos and had sent troops to the help of Augeas; he killed Neleus and all his sons, except the boy Nestor (who lived to take part in the siege of Troy), and did not even hesitate to attack the Priest of Hades, who entered the battle disguised as a skeleton in the hope of striking a superstitious dread in his heart. Hades had been the enemy of Hercules ever since Hercules had robbed him of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus; but Hercules, undismayed, threw the jaw-bone of a sow at him and wounded him in the side. In this battle fell the Argonaut Periclymenus… (437)

But for all that, the book is engaging, and the fate of Jason (which strikes me as a prototype for that of Meriwether Lewis) is illustrated very symbolically, in a way I’m not likely to forget.

 

Book Review: Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

The protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is so congenitally rational that he manages to justify every aspect of his suffering. Interned at the Zeitz labor camp during World War Two, Georg Koves at one point drops a bag of cement.

The bag’s paper had burst and the contents spilled out, leaving a heap of the material, the treasure, the costly cement, powdering the ground. By then he was already on me, I had already felt his fist on my face, then, having been decked, his boot on my ribs and his grip on my neck as he pressed my face to the ground, in the cement, screaming insanely that I scrape it together, lick it up. He then hauled me to my feet, swearing he would teach me: [‘I’ll show you, asshole, shithead, goddam Jew-dog,’] so I would never drop another bag again in the future. From then on, he personally loaded a new bag onto my shoulders each time it was my turn, bothering himself with me alone; I was his sole concern, it was me exclusively whom he kept his eye on, following me all the way to the truck and back, and whom he picked to go first even if, by rights, there were others still ahead of me in the queue. In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts, and from a certain perspective, I had to acknowledge, with good reason, for indeed, tottering, stooping though I might have been, my eyes seeing black spots, I did manage to hold out, coming and going, fetching and carrying, all without dropping a single further bag, and that, when it comes down to it, I would have to admit, proved him right. (169-170)

The tortuous interrupters throughout Georg’s narrative – “I have to admit,” “unless I’m mistaken,” “truth be told,” etc. – are typical of his overriding devotion to objectivity. Seeking always to accept any given situation as reasonable, Georg is incapable of influencing it. Indeed, his resistance to impulsiveness is absolute. When, shortly after his initial arrest, he might have had a chance to slip away, he decides against it:

I became alive to the sudden flash of a piece of yellow clothing up ahead, in the cloud of dust, noise, and vehicle exhaust fumes: it was ‘Traveler.’ A single long leap, and he was off to the side, lost somewhere in the seething eddy of machines and humanity. I was totally dumbfounded; somehow it did not tally with his conduct at the customs post, as I saw it. But there was also something else that I felt, a sense of happy surprise I might call it, at the simplicity of an action; indeed, I saw one or two enterprising spirits then immediately make a break for it in his wake, right up ahead. I myself took a look around, though more for the fun of it, if I may put it that way, since I saw no other reason to bolt, though I believe there would have been time to do so; nevertheless my sense of honor proved the stronger. The policemen took immediate action after that, and the ranks again close around me. (55-56)

Georg is a prisoner of his own nature or perhaps his fate. Later in the book, Georg suggests that fate is the opposite of freedom. “If there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible….If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate.” (259-260)

So why is the book called Fatelessness, when it seems to be about fate? Perhaps the implication is that the latter is only an excuse for the former. When Georg says, “I took the steps, no one else, and I declared that I had been true to my given fate throughout,” (259) is he admitting that his “declaration” had always been false, that he took all of his steps freely, even as each step took him closer to Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald?

“We ourselves are fate, I realized all at once….All that was needed was to admit it, meekly, simply, merely as a matter of reason, a point of honor.” (260)

A Meditation on Freedom and Equality, Inspired by The Last of the Wine

Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.

In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:

I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.

In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.

It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.