Sunday, June 19, 2016

He and his Man

When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, was published in 1719, it was received by many as a factual account. And there was good reason to do so; many sailors who had been castaways had written narratives, and in an era when not all the globe had yet been charted, there was still plenty of room for unknown "desert isles" (the phrase means deserted isles -- no sand is present or implied!).

But it turned out that the book was the work of Daniel Defoe, whose other great claim to fame was a similar portmanteau of fact and fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. In both texts, Defoe used actual journals, reminiscences, and newspaper articles as his sources, mimicking the language, tone, and apparatus of his sources, tossing in numbers and dates and longitudes and latitudes to set the seal of truth upon his sly fictions. The story of Alexander Selkirk, who really had been stranded on a remote island for four years, provided the thread in this case. And, as Defoe's latter-day follower Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a review, "how wonderful has been the result!"

We must now fast forward to some point in the 1940's, when the young John Maxwell Coetzee got his hands upon a copy of the book; it became a treasured favorite, and when, some time later, he found an encyclopedia article saying that Daniel Defoe was the author of Robinson Crusoe, he experienced, by his own account, an existential crisis: how could Robinson Crusoe, the man, have an author? Thus the preamble, and the title, to the lecture he delivered on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Crusoe, of course, already had a "man" (in English usage of the day, "man" was short for "manservant"), whom he'd dubbed "Friday." But now, stranger still, he had another man, or another man had him -- the author.

Coetzee had explored this years earlier in his own novel, Foe - but the Nobel lecture gives us a shorter, sweeter apothegm of the curious postcolonial echoes of Defoe's original story.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The postcolonial turn

Postcolonial literature is a very broad category; it includes African writers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ama Ata Aidoo, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe; Indian-British and Indian-American writers such as Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and Caribbean writers such as Maryse Condé, Marlene Nourbese Philip, and Michelle Cliff, among many others. They are part of a movement in which, to quote one critical assessment, the "Empire Writes Back" -- the former subjects of Colonialism send their rich and sharply-tones missives back towards that center which cannot hold. There are even some "white" writers (in the sense in which that term has been employed, deployed, and invoked) on the fringes of the former empire whose works may belong here as well: Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.

Postcolonial literature has its own particular power, and particular problems. Should a po-co writer use the language of the colonizer in his or her work? Or is it true that, as Audre Lorde argued, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"? Should postcolonial writers embody the vernacular literature of their home countries, as did (for example) Amos Tutuola? Or should they garner laurels by embracing highly contemporary, international forms and genres, as did Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe? Or does "literature" itself, as a category, constitute an artificial boundary left over from the colonial era; why shouldn't postcolonial "writing include" (for example) the lyrics of Bob Marley or the oral poetry of griots? What role do the old demarcations of race, caste, and class do to the potential solidarity of postcolonial writing -- or what does gender? And, lastly, is it best to see postcolonial writing as an international, or transnational phenomenon, or is it preferable not to group together writers from different nations, cultures, and epochs?

Finally, there is the question of the reader of this literature. Are we, ourselves, as residents of "developed" nations which have long benefitted from being atop the economic and social heap (at the expense of poorer nations and peoples), in a sense 'the enemy' of these writings? Are they meant for us at all? Should such work then be, as Manuel Puig entitled one of his novels, an "Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages"? These are the questions which animate the field of postcolonial literature, and which we'll consider -- albeit all too briefly -- as we read a few of its exemplary texts.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Couple of Stories by Mansfield and Joyce

Modernism has always, it seems, had a bit of a gender problem. For decades, there was a critical double-standard that relegated women -- Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and Katherine Mansfield -- to a second tier -- while enfolding men such as Joyce, Kafka, Forster, and Fitzgerald in canonical vestments.  Perhaps the only woman of the period to escape this phenomenon was Gertrude Stein -- but then, her modernism was quite unlike anyone else's, and she was at the center of an artistic circle filled with male writers and artists.  But now, at last, there does seem to be a correction, and many now see Virginia Woolf as the pre-eminent novelist of the period. Another beneficiary of our corrected hindsight is Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories are perhaps the finest of the entire Modernist movement, including one -- "Prelude" -- which became just the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press. Mansfield, too, was a bit of an outsider, a New Zealander who never felt entirely at home in Britain. She had the misfortune of striking up a long, on-again, off-again relationship with John Middleton Murry, a man who never really grasped her genius but nevertheless made himself her literary guardian; her early death from tuberculosis in 1923 put Murry in charge of her estate, and he extensively censored her letters and journals when they were published.

Joyce, during his career, sought to establish himself as the great voice of Modernism, and something more, its representative. Although he did not originate the technique of "stream of consciousness," his "eiphanies" -- which began with Dubliners in 1914 -- recast the notion, and with Ulysses (1922) he had his greatest triumph. Here was a novel the action of which took place all in a single day (16 June), in a single town (Dublin), and wove its words through the streams of every street, tarrying amidst idle thoughts of one of its idlest characters, Leopold Bloom. Joyce's presence was felt throughout the period from the early twenties to the outbreak of WWII, and not simply through his books, but via his habit of putting forth sections of his "Work in Progress" in literary magazinesjournals, and chapbooks throughout this period. His final work, Finnegans Wake (note the absence of an apostrophe) was his densest, written in what one critic has called "the language of the night" -- polyglot, punning, and peristrephic.

To give but a few examples: In FW, Joyce coins the word "fadograph" -- of course this is "photograph," with the punning suggestion that it "fades" over time -- but it is also a pun on the Irish Gaelic word fádo, which means "long ago" (many Irish folktales start with this word). There are also any number of other collusions and collisions of language, ranging from the "hundred letter thunder word" (made up of the word for thunder in dozens of languages) to the endless acronymic variations on the letters HCE ("Here Comes Everybody," "Haveth Childers Everywhere," "Howth Castle and Environs," and many more). It's a work of genius, surely, but one so closely-woven and multi-layered that it can really only be digested in small doses.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Yeats & Co.

One of the little ironies of twentieth-century 'British' literature is that most of the best of it was written by people who were born outside of Britain, places like Bombay, Dublin, Cape TownBloemfonteinOgidi, AbeokutaBerdychiv, and even (in the case of adopted Brit T.S. Eliot) St. Louis, Missouri. And the first harbinger of this shift from the purported center of Anglophone writing was, without doubt, the 'Irish Literary Renaissance' that had its origins in Dublin in the 1880's and 1890's. Ironically, the first wave of this movement sought to restore Irish Gaelic language and culture; its leaders, such as Douglas Hyde and his Gaelic League, scorned English as the tongue of the oppressor. At the same time, however, a small and loosely affiliated group of writers in Dublin were starting to establish a national literature and theatre in English; among their numbers were the poet George William Russell (known as Æ), the playwright John Millington Synge, along with James Stephens, Ella Young, Lady Gregory, and George Moore. Yeats, a brash young poet, was among the first to gain wider recognition, and in fact after a relatively brief period when he was active in Dublin's Abbey Theatre, spent most of the rest of his life in London. His early poems were steeped in the old Irish tradition, beginning in 1889 with The Wanderings of Oisin (a sort of Irish 'Ancient Mariner') and evocations of traditional ballads ("The Song of the Wandering Aengus")  In his middle years, he dabbled in occultism, joining the somewhat infamous Order of the Golden Dawn (which counted Aleister Crowley and S.L. MacGregor Mathers among its members) and becoming enamored of Wyndam Lewis and the "Vorticist" movement. He captured the spirit of Irish resentment ("An Irish Airman Foresees his Death") and memorialized the Irish rebellion with "Easter 1916." His poetry continued to evolve throughout his career, culminating in the rich, dark, ironic modernism of "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Second Coming," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion." By the end of his life, Yeats could be seen to represent a new efflorescence of lyricism, something not known in English since the Romantics, and not -- alas -- heard much since.