Monday, August 22, 2016

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

As I’m sure must be true of many dedicated (perhaps I should say obsessive) readers, when  I find an author I really like, I tend to read up everything of theirs I can find. William Boyd is a reader’s delight not only because he is an excellent writer, but because he has written so much. Today I want to talk to you about one of his most ingenious novels published in 2004, Any Human Heart. He begins with a quote from Henry James, “Never say you know the last word about any human heart.”

Boyd proposes to describe what he can of one human heart, that of Logan Mountstuart, by giving the reader a set of intimate journals beginning in 1912 when Logan is six years old, and ending with his death in 1991. What is amazing to me is that while these journals really read as if they are memoirs, the character and the journals are spun out of air. Boyd takes us through nearly the entire century: The School Journal (boarding school), The Oxford Journal, two London Journals, World War II Journal, a New York Journal, an African journal a French journal and several others. The imagination required to create and flesh out this life simply stuns me, and Logan meets many of the writers and artists of the century who then play into the complexity of the story; Boyd has done his homework as he takes his character through a long and complicated life.

The voice of Logan is really established in the School Journal when Logan is seventeen, and that very convincing voice is carried throughout. Not only do we meet Logan, but also his two most important male friends, and their lives are chronicled as well in surprising detail.
We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… The true journal intime understands this fact and doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyze: I am all these different people—all these different people are me.
The voice established in the boarding school journal is that of a bright but rather arrogant, pedantic and judgmental young man, who, with his similarly arrogant friends, is trying to put up with the boredom of their last years in school, waiting for their real lives to begin. They do this by noting the magnificent acts (or sub-magnificent acts) that each perform. Logan insists, however, that they can’t simply wait for these acts to happen. “It was no good, I said, just waiting for the various categories of manificents to happen—we had to initiate them ourselves.” He proposes to do that by having two of the boys think up tasks for the third that must so far as possible be witnessed and documented by the other two. Against the boarding school tradition of addressing other boys by their surnames,  Peter Scabius, Ben Leeping, and Logan Mountstuart begin to call each other Pete, Ben, and Logan. They decide that Leeping, who is Jewish, has to become a Roman Catholic and has to be considered as fit for the priesthood, Scabius is to seduce an older girl who lives on a farm close to the school, a witnessed kiss to be the ultimate test, and Logan, who has a contempt for all sports and sportsman is set the task of winning school colors for rugby, and must make the first team.

While the schoolboy tricks and dares in the first journal make for humorous reading, it is soon apparent that all three boys are more than supercilious students who are contemptuous of their peers and their teachers, as Boyd begins to explore the depths of their very human hearts.

Logan has a particularly close relationship with his father, who is quite weak and frail even as Logan is growing up, and he dies at a young age.
The day Father was buried my faith, such as it was, went with him into the grave. Shelly was so right: atheism is an absolute necessity; in this world of ours. If we are to survive as individuals we can rely only on those resources provided by our human spirit—appeals to a deity or deities are only a form of pretense. We might as well howl at the moon.
The self-absorption and vanity of the  narrator in this pretend-memoir is presented more baldly than were this a real memoir; even in telling of my worst deeds, I think I would be much less flippant in my self-description, self-evaluation. Although in the prologue we are told there will be no analysis or evaluation, only bare description, we feel Boyd’s analysis and value-judging, as we should. In his depiction of the sexual relations between men and women, especially moneyed men and poor women, he describes the times he is writing about in ways that expose the inequalities, the power issues. Still, there is a privileged class mentality in his male characters, even those Boyd seems to want to like, and want us to like. I suppose what I want to say is that there is not sufficient attention paid to class issues. Intellectual snobbery is also a class issue. He sometimes reads a bit too much like Fitzgerald—interesting stories about the complex inner lives of privileged people.

As amazing as Boyd’s understanding of history and incorporating it into his novels, I’m even more amazed by the difference of content and tone from novel to novel. Yesterday, I finished his Brazzaville Beach which has to do with primate behavior and the scientists who study it. It’s hard for me even to imagine the research he has to have done about primatologists, about Jane Goodall and other prominent field-scientists. So his research skills feed his incredible imagination as he unwinds these stories, exposes these worlds. He writes complex spy novels, love-story mysteries, and novels about  murderous chimpanzees. What’s next?

The understanding of 20th century art and art-dealers required to flesh out one of Logan’s personas is evident through several of the journals. We meet (along with Logan), Virginia Woolf, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Sartre, and so many more. As Logan eats handfuls of benzedrine and drinks gallons of liquor, we are led on  tours of Paris’ and London’s writers and artists. Logan’s self-absorbed rambling remains, at least for this reader, somehow charming and deeply human right to the end of this rather long book. Though there are moments?

I will leave you with another Loganism, a self-justification dreamed up as simply an essential (wired in) part of his nature. Men must be men, must heed the existential call.
Why did I wait so long? I must never let this damaging frustration build up again. I have to recognize that I’m simply not equipped, temperamentally, to stay at home and live a circumscribed, rural, English life—I’m essentially urban my nature—and also the prospect and reality of travel. Otherwise, I’ll desiccate and die.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian woman with the mellifluous name, Ifemelu, writes a blog while holding a fellowship at Princeton. The blog is entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. I could easily review Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah simply by quoting from the many blogs incorporated into the novel. And I will quote a few.

At its simplest, this is a love story: Ifemelu and Obinze meet in grade school in Lagos, and have an essential connection thereafter, though they go to different continents, have other lovers, take on new personas. But while the love-story aspect remains right to the end of this long and intricate novel, this is really Ifemelu’s story, and Adichie has admitted that much of it is based on her own life.

I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels as I read this. Ifemelu and Obinze are children of relatively affluent and well-educated parents when Nigeria is under a military dictatorship, and while they both desire to go the the U.S., it is not primarily for economic reasons. Obinze dreams of studying literature at Princeton; Ifemelu is less romantic in her views of the U.S., and much less certain of wanting to leave her country and her family. Ironically, and due to the politics of the times, it is she who gets the visa, and ends up at Princeton. He is unable to get a travel visa, and finally enters England illegally.

When the reader first meets Ifemelu, she has been in the States for thirteen years, and she has  already decided to return to Nigeria, not because she is particularly unhappy, but simply because she wants to go home. Much of the novel, like the blogs, is critical not only of American racism, but of Americanahs, Nigerians who return to Nigeria only to judge it by their learned American tastes. Everywhere she turns her eyes, Ifemelu is analytic and usually critical, but with an underlying empathy.  To note a few of her observations, “She did not understand grunge, the idea of looking shabby because you could afford not to be shabby, it mocked true shabbiness.”
… it was absurd how women’s magazines forced images of small-boned, small-breasted white women on the rest of the multi-boned, multi-ethnic world of women to emulate.  
‘But I keep reading them,’ she said. ‘It’s like smoking, it’s bad for you but you do it anyway.’
There are a wealth of one-liners in this novel that would give you a real taste of its essence, but since the blogs play such an important part in the novel, I want to quote one longish blog to give you an idea of how the author is allowed to step back in some way, even from her lead-character, and adopt a cool, critical voice while reflecting on what it is for a foreign born black  person to live in the U.S.

Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk. 
Second ideology. Liberal and conservatives. They don’t merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third region. The North and the South. The two sides fought in a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place. (Or as that marvelous rhyme goes; if you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around, if you’re black, get back!) Americans assume that everyone will get their tribalism. But it takes a while to figure it all out. So in undergrad, we had a visiting speaker and a classmate whispers to another, “Oh my God, he looks so Jewish,” with a shudder, an actual shudder. Like Jewish was a bad thing . I didn’t get it. As far as I could see, the man was white, not much different from the classmate herself. Jewish to me was something vague, something biblical. But I learned quickly. You see in America’s ladder of races. Jewish is white, but also some rungs below white. A bit confusing, because I knew this straw-haired freckled girl who said she was Jewish. How can Americans tell who is Jewish? I read somewhere how American colleges used to ask applicants for their mother’s surnames, to make sure they weren’t Jewish, because they wouldn’t accept Jewish people. So maybe that’s how to tell. From people’s names? The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.
Efemilu does return to Nigeria, to Lagos. Once there, she starts a new blog, one critical of Americanahs. As in her American blog, there is humor, but also insight and a social-surgeon’s eye. She also, although not immediately, takes up with Obinze again, who is now wealthy as a land-speculator and married with children. While there are several short sections of the book dealing with Obinze’s life, his illegal entry into England and his deportation, it is really only in the final section that his inner life is fleshed out a bit,his agony over his love for Efemilu and what that means for his wife, his children. The readers believes his inner turmoil. And while the blogs take aim at the sexism rife in Nigeria, Adichie makes it clear that Obinze is genuinely conflicted—loves his wife and family in spite of being unable to put Efemilu and their love behind him. I won’t tell you how the love-story ends except to say that is not idealized.

The lead-character in this novel is remarkably well drawn, complex, with contradictory desires and values. I confess to knowing next to nothing about Nigeria nor its political history, but Adichie certainly does her best to give us a long look at Nigeria as well as England and America. This was actually her fourth book, and I intend to read everything she has written. She is a wonderful writer with a rich global view.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Restless by William Boyd

How wonderful it is for an old chronic reader to continue to discover that there are exciting writers out there whom one has never read. Thanks to a dear reader friend, I recently discovered the British writer, William Boyd, and I am already deep into a second novel of his. Today, I want to tell you about a deeply satisfying spy thriller, Restless. In just the past few weeks, and by happenstance rather than plan, I have read several novels about the years leading up to WWII. This novel takes the reader back and forth between 1976 and 1939. The star character is a woman with the delectable name of Eva Delectorskaya. Rather than than simply skipping over the rather tongue-tying name once I had read it, I found myself stopping to savor the exotic name each time it occurred, and since The Story of Eva Delectorskaya is returned to again and again in the course of the novel, I said the name to myself over and over.

Since this is more-or-less a mystery novel, I will not reveal much to you as potential readers. But I can tell you that the novel begins with a woman handing over to her daughter a manuscript.
’I’d like you to read this’ she said.
I took it from her. There seemed to be some dozens of pages—different types, different sizes of paper. I opened it. There was a title page: The Story of Eva Delectorskaya.
‘Eva Delectorskaya,’ I said, mystified. “Who’s that?’
‘Me,’ she said. ‘I am Eva Delectorskaya.”
The daughter, who has always seen her mother as a rather bland, ordinary woman who lives sheltered away outside a tiny village in the heart of England, soon comes to realize “that bitter dark current of fear that flowed beneath the placid surface of her ordinary life…”  She has been hiding under a new name, a marriage and family for forty years, but she is still afraid, "always frightened that someone was going to come and kill her. And she had good reasons.”

While the spy-thriller theme keeps the reader on edge and turning pages, I found this novel to be most interesting for its richly developed characters (especially Eva), and for the clever ways in which the past and present are finally merged so that mother and daughter are united in common struggle.

Few male writers manage to convincingly write through the eyes of a woman lead character, but in this novel both Sally Gilmartin (a.k.a. Eva Delectorskaya), and her daughter, Ruth, a single mother who is trying to make sense of her own life, are developed patiently and slowly by the author, so that they are believable and deeply interesting human beings. While Eva’s past is certainly more glamorous and thrilling, Ruth’s life as a teacher of English as a second language is a great counterpoint to Eva’s. Both women are in many ways outwardly cool, and there is little physical or emotional warmth between them. Still, as Ruth learns more and more about her mother’s past, she is able to understand both her mother and herself on a new and much deeper level.

Eva is recruited into the British Secret Service as a way of trying to retaliate against the killers of her younger brother at the hands of British fascists.  She is sent to New York to work for the B.S.C. (British  Security Coordination) whose job it is to plant stories in American journals that are aimed at drawing the United States into the war against Germany that is raging in Europe. She is eventually sent to New Mexico in an attempt to circulate a fake map indicating German plans to occupy South American and control the Panama Canal.

Acting under the injunction of the man who recruited her, “Never trust anyone!”, Eva is left to her own devices when she is about to be killed by German sympathizers, and those devices lead to acts that have on the run for the rest of her life.

Although I knew nothing about Boyd when I began this novel, I’ve since read a good deal about him. It is obvious that his novels are superbly researched, so besides the intriguing stories of Eva and Ruth, the reader leans a lot about the extensive British spy networks working in the U.S. trying to tip America into the war. I am now reading another of his novels, Sweet Caress, that is as different from Restless as can be. He obviously has rich and varied talents. I intend to read all of his fiction, and to look at his non-fiction as well. His command of the language is amazing, and he shows a lovely heart as well as an excellent intellect. Once I started this novel, I couldn’t put it down, and read it in two days.

I think he is a superb story-teller, and I think you will think the same once you read him. My hunch is that any of his many novels you start with will grab your attention and lead you to read more of his work.