Monday, February 13, 2017

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In honor of Black History month, I want to talk to you about an author I suspect most of you (even the avid readers) have not heard of, Nella Larson, and her short but powerful novel, Quicksand. Associated historically with the group of artists grouped together as the Harlem Renaissance, I suspect that this novel made a lot of people, both people of color and white, quite uncomfortable. The title is singularly appropriate, for Helga Crane saw her life (and the lives of many, perhaps most) Blacks as lives caught and slowly sinking into Quicksand—lives in which even the struggle to get out, get ahead, get going was destined to pull people down, snaring and suffocating them mentally and spiritually.

Helga has a Danish mother and an African-American father, and from early on feels that she belongs nowhere. The reader picks up her life when she is twenty-two and teaching at a well-respected Negro school. She is engaged to another teacher, and thought of highly by the school’s president, but she is profoundly unhappy and thinking of leaving her position. She had that afternoon “had to listen to the banal, the patronizing and even insulting remarks of one of the renowned white preachers of the state,” and that speech along with her daily routines have brought her close to a decision to resign from her post.
This was, he had told them with obvious sectional pride, the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south; in fact, it was better even than a great many schools for white children. And he had dared any Northerner to come south and after looking at this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro. And he said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products, there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them. They had good sense and they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste. 
Helga’s answer to this is “No forever!”  And though she has very little money or prospects, she decides to leave the school and her fiancĂ©, in spite of the president’s attempt to keep her there, telling her she is just the sort of person the school needs. Her fiancĂ©, who feels fortunate to have a position in the school remains, and Helga trains north to make a living in whatever way she can. She is frankly and deeply confused by the whole issue of color.
For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slide by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair: straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair., wooly hair. She saw black eyes in white faces, brown eyes in yellow faces, gray eyes in brown faces, blue eyes in tan faces....
Of course, life in the north is no better; besides the meaningless service jobs she has to accept, she also has to deal with men who want to save her. Finally, through happenstance, she finds a way to go to Denmark, and for a while things seem much better. Living there with an aunt, she is more than accepted into the community, but as a kind of exotic novelty. She is even courted by a famous artist who expects her to swoon when he offers marriage, “But you see, Herr Olsen, I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned, even by you.”

Finally, surprising even herself, she returns to America, though she dreads it. Without telling too much more of the story, I will tell you that she finally goes through an existential crisis, and for a short time decides that religion is the answer for her. She marries a preacher, has children and is soon engulfed in that life of mothering, though she very soon loses respect for the adored-by-others preacher.

No happy endings here; after an illness that almost kills her, and with a dawning awareness that religion is not the answer, that she must find a better more rebellious way, “…hardly has she left her bed and become able to walk again without pain, hardly had the children returned from the homes of the neighbors, when she began to have her fifth child.”

Yes, this is a sad little book, but I think a profound one.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about a superb novel of ideas by Ian McEwan, Enduring Love. He might also have named it obsessive love, for it turns out to be an examination of a form of erotomania, named after the French psychiatrist De Clerambault. But more generally, it is (like his earlier novel, Black Dogs) an analysis of the the psychological division and tension between clear, cool reason and emotions such as rage, love and faith. McEwan’s brother holds a PhD and professorship in philosophy, and as you readers must know, McEwan is much interested in science, as is made manifest in his novels Solar and Saturday. What he often casts as a conflict between two characters, say a no-nonsense realist and an advocate of blind faith, is, I think, a struggle McEwan has with himself, between the black dogs of hard reason and emotion. In this particular novel he offers many fascinating asides on psychology of belief (especially religious belief), the reliability of memory and even of immediate experience via the senses.

Because the novel is also a mystery of sorts in which the tension builds gradually and inexorably, I don’t intend to say much about the actual story. Suffice it to say that like Saturday, the novel begins explosively with an event that shocks and shatters the observers; in this case the sudden appearance of a helium balloon that comes to ground in a large field on the outskirts of London, witnessed by a number of observers who race to the scene to try to rescue the balloonist and his grandson who is still inside the basket. Wind gusts threaten to relaunch the balloon and take it over an escarpment and possibly into overhanging power lines. Five men struggle to keep the balloon grounded until the boy can be rescued, but as it becomes airborne again, one by one they release the ropes they are hanging to in their vain attempt to keep it grounded. One of the men, Joe Rose, is tormented by guilt about finally letting his rope go in order to save his life. Another man hangs on even when the others have let go in order to save themselves; alone, there is no chance that he can bring the balloon to ground again, but by the time he cannot any longer retain his grip on the rope, he is too high and plunges to his death as the others look on helplessly.

As always, the story, itself, is gripping, but I was much more interested in the questions McEwan raises about memory and perception, philosophical and psychological questions that his character Joe Rose raises as he struggles with his own guilt feelings, and tries to deal also with being the object of an obsessive and irrational love from one of the other would be rescuers. As Joe reflects on the reliability of memory, he descends into a kind of Cartesian skepticism regarding not only memory, but also of so-called direct perception.
No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We’re descended from the indignant passionate tellers of half-truths, who, in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced ourselves…when it didn’t suit us, we couldn’t agree on what was in front of us.
And further:
Neuroscientists report that the subjects asked to recall a scene while under a magnetic resonance imaging scanner show intense activity in the visual cortex, but what a sorry picture memory offers, barely a shadow, barely in the realm of sight, the echo of a whisper.
Kant may have been the first philosopher to point out that, contrary to common belief, memory is not like a camera;  it is not a reproductive faculty, but more a creative one. He calls it a synthetic faculty that essentially makes up a narrative from the very limited data offered. While the memory may become sharper with repeated tellings, that is not due to an ability to analyze the memory (say for more detail), but a supposed clarity or certainty that simply becomes more fixed with each retelling, no matter how true to reality the memory is. Memory is less a picture of the past than a drawing or painting.

Those in the grips of Clerambault’s Syndrome take even denial of reciprocity form the loved one as a kind of signal of repressed or hidden love. Facial gestures or completely innocent actions by the beloved are taken as signs of love; nothing can count as counter evidence to the obsessed lover.

Another line of the story not mentioned yet, but pivotal to the action is the effect the obsession has on the love between Joe and his partner Clara. She eventually comes to doubt Joe’s claims about being followed by Parry and receiving letters and phone calls. When he tells her of his research into the syndrome, and tries to warn her of Impending danger, she is dismissive in her replies. “You think you can read your way out of this…Don’t you realize you’ve got a problem?”

Will the heretofore strong and passionate love Clara and Joe have shared survive this intervention in their lives? Will it survive Joe’s obsession with his stalker? These and other questions in this intriguing mystery story readers will have to answer for themselves.

I’m not sure how I missed this novel written in 90s; I thought I had read all of McEwan, but I was delighted to have come across it, and I recommend it to you as one of his best.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I could count on one hand the number of excellent novels that have been made into excellent, or even very good movies. The primary exception to this rule is Marlynne Robinson’s superb novel, Housekeeping which was made into an excellent movie of the same name and starred the incomparable Christine Lahti.

Given that view, it may come as a surprise that today I’m going to review a novel that I first experienced as a movie, and was so moved that I decided to read the book. The Light Between Oceans,  by M.L. Stedman is a wonderfully written and moving novel, and surprise of surprises to this reader, I thought the reading of the novel was enhanced by having already seen the movie, and, likewise, the movie version enlivened and enhanced the novel.

I’m not going to give away much of the storyline here since that is what is so central to the book; instead I hope you will read the book for yourself and see the movie. The title refers to a lighthouse between two oceans, built on the tip of an island that is the top of a peak in an undersea mountain range.

From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an edgeless carpet below the cliffs.

The bare bones of the story is that a man, Thomas, home from horrible times in World War I, and seeking solitude and refuge, is assigned the job of lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock—a half day’s journey from the small seaside village from which the lighthouse receives its provisions every six months. After an initial six-month temporary assignment, he is given the full-time position. Much to his surprise, he meets a young woman, Isabel, only child of a headmaster in the small village, who falls in love with the older man and essentially begs him to marry her and take her with him to live on the remote island. Although his initial reaction is to dissuade her, he cannot deny his growing love for this bright and brave young woman.

Tom is an exceptionally honorable and rule-bound man, he feels blessed by Isabel’s love, and he does marry her and take her with him to live on Janus Rock. Totally in love with each other, and both loving the solitary life of the island, they set up house and she tends to the chickens and goats and the sparse garden while Thomas mans the lighthouse. Both want children, but after three miscarriages, grief threatens to unravel the marriage.

And then, miraculously (or so it seems to Isabel), a boat washes up on the island carrying a dead man and an infant. “He hoisted out a woolen bundle: a woman’s soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant.” Isabel immediately takes the baby to be a gift from God, perhaps in exchange for her miscarriages. Thomas, on the other hand, is a rigorously moral and rule-bound man who has survived the carnage of the War only by adhering strictly to his moral code. Now he is torn between his love for Isabel and what he perceives as his duty.

And so the scene is set. Tom, too, soon becomes entranced by the baby. When he reminds Isabel that the baby’s mother may be alive, and that they should turn the baby over to the authorities, her reaction is swift and adamant.
What if the mother’s not dead, and he’s got a wife fretting, waiting for them both?
What woman would let her baby out of her sight: Face it, Tom: she must have drowned. 
She clasped his hands again. ‘I know how much your rules mean to you, and I know this is technically breaking them. But what are those rules for? They’re to save lives! That’s all I’m saying we should do, sweetheart: save this life. She’s here and she needs us and we can help her. Please.
Izzy, I can’t. This isn’t up to me. Don’t you understand?
Her face darkened. “How can you be so hard-hearted? All you care about is your rules and your ships and your bloody light.
What follows, of course, is how they handle this perhaps miracle, and how it affects their love. Besides the wonderfully portrayed love between these two for each other and their charge, there is so much of interest in this story about lighthouses, about the rugged coast of Australia. The beauty of the written description is brought to full light and color by the film version. It is hard for me to believe this is a debut novel for Ms. Stedman; I’m confident it will not  be her last.

The movie does justice to the novel both by its incredible cinematography and the superb casting. The love Tom and Isabel have for each other and for the baby is masterfully portrayed in both written and movie versions.

The moral dilemmas the book and movie have left me continue to employ both my mind and my heart. I think you will also be left pondering what you would have done in this situation, and also what would have been the right thing to do. I would like to have presented it as a question for my ethics classes; I still find myself wondering, even agonizing along with Tom and Izzy.

If you are like me in tending to avoid movie versions of books you have loved, I challenge you to see this movie and read the book and ask yourself if both are made better by the combination.