Author Archive

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN by JENNIFER CLEMENT


Prayers for the Stolen is set in Mexico in the 2000s. It's about the narco-traffickers' traffic in young girls, from the point of view of a girl. This review from the guardian raved about it and I agree. I cant usually cope with such awful subject matter, especially when you know its true, these things, or things very like them really happen, but its done so cleverly that i found it was funny and entertaining without at all downplaying the horror of the reality.

It achieves this through a very clever use of point of view. It's written in the first person from the point of view of a young poor rural girl called LadyDi. This enables you to read all the very difficult material about narco-traffickers, people smuggling, guns and drugs and paedophilia more easily because it's from this naive perspective. However, LadyDi is always quoting her mother who is a very world world weary and cynical character, but very smart.

This device allows the author to make all these really funny and interesting observations about what's going on that would otherwise be out of place for a naïve young girl. As she is quoting her mother the author is able to put all these very diary and very funny world weary observations into the mouth of young LadyDi, so its full of remarkable quotes and observations and real insights about what it takes to survive in such a terrible world.

Other bookgroupers also agreed it was very well done, interesting and funny, along with horrific. One bookgrouper used the word dystopian to describe it. That is exactly right – but the book is no made-up fantasy. Clement has lived her whole life in Mexico and produces what The Guardian calls 'the new journalism'

Prayers for the Stolen, (is)…described as a novel, but that's much too simple a description for what Clement is doing with the genre. In this startling tale of a young girl abducted into the Mexican drug trade, the social history – the reality of the world from which the fiction comes – burns away anything on the pages that could feel "made up". This is like the new journalism made newer still……..

Every sentence in Prayers for the Stolen is direct, potent, unexpected; twisting on the page like a knife in the gut. Ladydi tells us about Paula, a pretty girl who, unlike all the others, has been released by her captors and is able to return home, now hollow-eyed and dead inside. Her story is the catalyst for all the girls' stories in this terrifying narrative that exposes the inexorable repetition of lives brutalised by the sovereignty and corruption of the drug cartels.

The writing is electrifying not only because of its subject matter – anyone could report the facts – or because Clement is so strong on the insider viewpoint that gives new journalism its kick, but because she is a consummate stylist who makes sure nothing is wasted. Every scene is related with her trademark concision and fastidious attention to detail, her prose a gorgeous amalgam of spoken Mexican English, prayer, repetitions, incantations and American dreck…..

So there's brightness, too, humour in the darkness of Ladydi's world – a tenderness and love that are glimpsed as possibilities of another life, like the plastic flowers and glittery tinsel decorating a roadside shrine…..

Clement's authority comes from her deep intimacy with the subject matter of her books…… and as a Mexican, the territory of her three novels is her home. For Prayers for the Stolen she spent time with the girls and women in prison whose only real crime was having once been young and pretty. When she writes: "The Santa Marta Jail in the south of Mexico City was the biggest beauty parlour in the world," it rings true because it is true. She hung out with all those daughters and girlfriends and mothers and sisters left behind by the drug barons who kidnapped them from their homes and families. Now they sit around waiting for justice that won't come, doing their hair and painting their nails and telling stories – stories that are real lives.

It was so vivid and so real – it makes you think 'of course this is what happens when might makes right, when money talks and there is no higher authority, no avenue of appeal beyond guns and money'. Its mad max, and every other post apocalyptic movie you have ever seen happening for real in rural Mexico.

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August 27, 2017 at 6:42 am Leave a comment

COMMONWEALTH by ANN PATCHETT

Commonwealth is a middle class blended family drama. The custody arrangements mean that every North American summer 6 kids from two families spend several weeks together with couple that created the whole situation, who provide next to no supervision. It's about the long-tail effects of what those kids got up to each summer in 80s on them as adults in the present day, and by implication of the behaviour of the couple. The consequences of their self-absorption.

The Guardian's review begins

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.

Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.

Most bookgroupers liked it. They appreciated that the language did not get in the way. It seemed to narrate events and give insights to behaviours of characters without ever drawing attention to itself. One bookgrouper particularly liked that the dialogue was quite surprising, and everyone agreed. it was like real dialogue in that characters rarely answered the questions they were asked directly, instead making observations triggered by the question or related to it, so their conversations moved from one related thing to the next, as they do in life.

We had an interesting discussion about whether it was a deliberate, pretentious, attempt to turn a pretty ordinary story in to ‘Literature’. It wasn't from the language perspective, as i’ve said the language did its job without being flashy or showy. However, it did do a number of other things that you could argue were deliberate attempts to flag to the prize awarding literarti that this was ‘Literature’: it was non-linear timewise and character wise; and self – reflective or ‘meta’ as some would have it.

It was non-linear time wise because it started from the end, or near it, then jumped to different moments in the history of the family that led to that point. Nearly every book that wants to be ‘Literature’ does this. It often feels quite forced, just adding confusion but no other value. However in this case it did not get in the way. Most of the book was actually in time order, apart from the beginning and the end. And the points chosen were clearly turning points. So you could argue it was ok because it didn't get in the way, it wasn't confusing. but you could also say it was entirely unnecessary, and just included because the author, a former book editor, knows that it is expected for Literature.

Similarly, as a former editor the author would know that all ‘Literature’ these days has to switch point view between different characters to show the author can ‘write’ men and women and whoever. The book is structured this way — with a section from the point of view of one character and then another. But the end most, but not all, of the main characters have had their own section. Again, while you could say its unnecessary and therefore just for show, its also done well, so it doesn't seem to be confusing or distracting. Each section is reasonably long so its not hard to follow, and as you spend time with each character it starts to explain their behaviour as related in other sections by other characters. Although I thought it wasn't entirely successful. For me the men were a little bit stereo typical, without a great depth of character, but the book ids mostly from the point of view of the women characters and they were very good.

It was self reflective in that it featured a book and film about the events described in the book, even with the same name as the book. So it's a book describing a book about itself. As i understand it, this is what some people call meta-narrative, which is very trendy in literary circles. So on this count you can definitely argue that the author was trying hard to be literary. It really wasn't necessary in the story, which is otherwise quite a well-done middle-class family drama with a few surprises here and there; some very interesting lines; and some well observed descriptions of the interactions between people. It is done well enough that it could have stood on its own in that genre without the ‘meta’ bit. Therefore the choice to include it does smack of chasing prizes.

Whether or not it was self-consciously pretentious, i think if you like middle class family dramas, especially about west coast Americans, this would not be a bad choice. However there many many such books. I'm not sure there is anything distinctive about this one.

August 5, 2017 at 7:14 am Leave a comment

KINDRED by OCTAVIA BUTLER

Although it is a study of America in the early 1800s this book could be a vision of the future. It’s apalling central character Rufus was raised in a household with slaves, whom he simultaneously regarded as friends and family, and ordered around to do his every wish and command. His total inability to form genuine relationships may be what is waiting for us all in the era of the robot; when our children have been brought up with electronic child care slaves they are free to use and abuse.
But Rufus is not the core issue. The real story is of African American woman – Dana – from the 1970s.

She gets transported back in time to the slave owning past when the life of her white ancestor – the apalling Rufus – is threatened. She then gets transported back to her time when her own life is threatened. So the book is constructed from the series of dramatic events that lead to her being transported back-and-forth, and how it is for her to survive between these events, either as a black woman in slave era America or back in her own 70s Los Angeles wondering what is going on.

This time travel scenario is set up so that even though she often only stays in her time for a few hours between trips to the past, when she goes back years have passed. Likewise she can be back in the slave times for months, but only gone for a few minutes from her own time.

This set-up is a little complex but it makes for a great book. It’s a very clever at multiple levels. Its main purpose is to allow us to see more clearly the slave owning world because we can see it through modern eyes, but black eyes. However, it also has some practical story telling bonuses. For example, it stops her killing her obnoxious ancestor because she knows has to wait until her ancestor Hagar is born, otherwise she herself might never come to be.

It’s well written in the sense that the writing stays out-of-the-way, and does it’s job of communicating characters and scenes. It does not try to wow you with language fireworks but its certainly not any the less powerful for that.

This more plain writing style is the major real difference with the previous book group novel – Beloved. It was also a very powerful novel about slave America, but the writing was difficult at times and beautiful at others. Either way the writing was constantly, and deliberately, in your face. In contrast this book is very easy to read. It doesn’t shout at you that its a literary novel. Tellingly though everybody in the group finished it for the first time in many years because it was easy to read.

Interestingly both books agreed that in their view the most crucial part of the slave experience is the humiliation, self loathing and self doubt it causes. Both books communicate this same experience, just in different ways.

They both say that self-doubt and humiliation comes from feeling like you have given in to violence, chosen not to resist and fight back, and how this causes ongoing guilt. A feeling that you are allowing this to happen to you; even though you have no choice, it’s clear you will be killed if you do resist; nevertheless self loathing comes from that perception that you have acquiesced, accepted and therefore in some way participated in this abomination.

These books hammer that point, this in their view is the biggest part of the slave experience and why that self loathing has echoes down the generations

Even though it was written in the 70s the book does take the opportunity to deal with many things other than slavery.

The main character is black and in her own time she’s married to a white man, and there is a lot said about that at the beginning. Rightly so. Interracial marriages as they called in the US, even in the 21st century, seem to remain very controversial. The purpose of the story of their families both ostracising them in their own is to show America still has a long way to go. 

There is also a lot of gender issues in the novel because Dana, the main character, arrives back in time with short hair and wearing pants. They dont know what to think of her. 

There is also interesting dynamics amongst the black slaves. There is a hierarchy. Dana is seen as too close to the masters, too educated, so she is called a white nigger. This shows to complexity of humans, and makes the point that just because you are a victim of some terrible doesn’t automatically make you are saint. Victims can also be horrible to their fellow victims.

The other main character, Rufus, is a remarkable psychological creation. He is just appalling in almost every way, but this is done in a way that really shines a light on what it means to live well what it means to have good relationships. 

Everything with Rufus is about punishment and reward; even when he has genuine feelings. He really does seem to love Dana and another woman in the book Alice – the mother of his children. Even so he only deals with them in a punishment and reward way. He wants them to love him and he thinks he can achieve that through punishment, often terrible punishment, and reward. It makes no sense, every reader knows you cant beat someone in to loving you, but in his case its all he knows. It is the only model of relationship he has see, because he has grown up isolated on slave era plantation with his father. As a man of his time this is how his father treated both Rufus as a child and his slaves, so Rufus behaves the same way.

This really tells you something about the the slave-master relationship. It also seems to be saying something about the impact of slavery on the white slave-owners not just about the impact of slavery on the black slaves

And this is where you can argue the study of slavery has great contemporary relevance. We may be entering a new era of slavery, the slavery of robots. So it may be that we are all at risk of becoming Rufus when we all have permanent personal slaves. If we treat them as slaves will they have the same affect on us? Will we all become like Rufus in the way that we deal with people because we are used to dealing with our electronic slaves, so will we treat each other in the same way and be disappointed when people don’t respond like our robots respond? If we get used to treating our robots as slaves will we want to treat humans the same way? Worse still will we look for opportunities to get a ‘real’ slave – a genuine human we can treat like a robot, will that become the new conspicuous consumption?

Even bookgroupers who don’t normally like sci-fi or fantasy managed to cope with the time travel aspect with no problem. I think because of straightforward language and the really clever devices were used to set up the scenario:

  • Making Rufus the ancestor of Dana meant she had she to keep rescuing him until her ancestor Hagar was born even though he was so appalling. 
  • Making the trigger for the time travel a life-threatening situations for either Rufus or Dana because it meant the drama had to keep coming to get them back and forth. It created constant suspense because whatever time she was in you wondered what was going on back in the other time.
  • Having her there from the 70s really made you look at the slave world through her 70s eyes. 
  • Having her there as black woman really brought it home very strongly especially in one instance where she was sent back in time with her white husband so they were there together and how that played out – a black woman and a white man back in that time – and how they had to behave to survive was very revealing.

Highly recommended

July 8, 2017 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

BELOVED by TONI MORRISON

beloved Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988, and the author  Toni Morrison went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. it was also 41st on this list of best books of all time. With that kind of resume you might think bookgroup was destined for disappointment due to exceedingly high expectations.

Not in this case. This book delivered. It is understandably famous. It uses what you could call magic realism, fantasy or supernatural elements, to bring the real horror of American slavery to life.

Probably like a lot of people I thought I knew enough about the slave era in America. I have a longstanding interest in the politics of equality and as a result I have a much brighter view of the 20th century and much darker view of earlier centuries than most. So my view of slavery based societies, and all pre-20th century societies, whether they are based on feudal, religious, traditional or colonial arrangements is very dark. I thought I had a clear eyed view of the evil seemingly ordinary humans are capable of when there is no oversight of, or accountability for, their actions.

This book made me realise my sight was not nearly dark enough. It also opened my eyes further to the community, family and intergenerational effects of such systems of domination and oppression – the impacts of these systems at the population level for generations afterwards.

A key message the book wants to send appears to be that the real inhumanity of the slavery system is that it forces people to be complicit in their own humiliation. They become self-loathing because they feel they are constantly making decisions to accept being abused and degraded, instead of dying or going mad. Even though their only choice is death or survival they feel survival is somehow morally the wrong choice. They feel they should choose to die rather than to be treated this way. The book seems to be saying that it’s creating this feeling of self loathing that is the real evil of slavery, because it explains the intergenerational dysfunction and disaster that follows slavery.

The power of this experience is communicated through the central story of the book which is very slowly revealed piece by piece. Having recently escaped slavery, Sethe (the main character) and her children are about to be recaptured. She chooses to kill her children thinking that is better than letting them suffer the way she has. She succeeds in killing her infant daughter but not the other children.

Reading of the horror inflicted on her, and the other slaves around her, its hard, impossible really,  to feel that Sethe’s choice was wrong. Nevertheless the book goes further, it says understandable or not, right or wrong, its an act with far reaching consequences. The murdered child becomes a malevolent ghost and eventually a malevolent flesh and blood person, created from the remorse of the mother.

It seemed to me that this scenario, and the ideas it encapsulates apply to all subjugated and brutalised peoples. It helps explain the African American experience that it describes, but also the experience of indigenous populations decimated by colonial peoples, as Intergenerational trauma. How can you feel you belong to a country, and communicate that belonging to your children, when in that country your ancestors have been treated so badly they choose to kill their infant children, to protect them from such treatment? When the pain of making that decision is so strong it has the power to create a flesh and blood ghost of remorse?

AS Morrison says in the foreword to the edition i read

that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience,

However the book also has some answers. If self loathing is the problem, self love is the solution.

Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh

Bookgroupers did have some problems with the book. They felt it was hard to follow because it jumps back and forth in time and refers to many different characters, especially at the beginning. They also felt the language was difficult in places, especially because of the unfamiliar accents and language at he beginning, and later because it has passages of unpunctuated stream of consciousness style writing. Several Bookgroupers also found the fantasy and/or supernatural elements confusing, especially who or what is Beloved – the flesh and blood ghost of remorse.

I loved it. If you feel like reading a genuine prize winning literary classic, this one is definitely worth the effort.

 

April 16, 2017 at 1:38 pm Leave a comment

WHITE TEETH by ZADIE SMITH

White_Teeth_Tube_Map White Teeth by jamaican-english writer Zadie Smith won the orange prize for fiction and a bunch of other awards.

All Bookgroupers enjoyed this book which is very rare. Usually there are are at least some dissenting views. Sometimes the dissenting view is me but in this case I agree. I found this to be wonderful in many many ways.

Perhaps its most obvious virtue is that it’s an evocation of the rainbow society of modern London, circa the 1990s anyway. It was a terrific history of how that society came to be, including its connections to empire; a particularly persuasive history as it comes from someone inside that society – the author being a Londoner from a Jamaican family. Getting this insiders view of that society, rather than an outsiders perspective of how they thought it was, made it much more enjoyable.

Where I come from,’ said Archie, ‘a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.’
‘Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,’ said Samad tersely, ‘that it is a good idea.’

Even better though was that it managed to be funny and entertaining at the same time, so it wasn’t just an appeal to the readers conscience about racism and multiculturalism.

Lacking any name for the furtive rumblings that appeared in her lower abdomen on these occasions, Clara called it the spirit of the Lord.

In addition to all that it is a novel on a grand scale it multiple levels. At the level of plot it is an epic story spanning multiple generations of multiple families spread through many big moments in history including Indian independence, the end of WW@ and the fall of the Berlin wall.

At the level of ideas, it combines this geopolitical history with the personal and family history of the characters to illustrate how things work and why they work the way they do.

If religion is the opium of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made

Despite all these many virtues the strongest feature of the book may be at the level of its characters. They are interesting, funny, believable, frustrating, realistic and romantic. A Jamaican Jehovah Witness mum, an adulterous pious muslim Bangladeshi dad, genius children and London wannabe teen rapper gangsta boys. All brought to the page with real spirit and love, and enough attention to detail that makes them completely believable despite their oddity.

She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.

Highly recommended

 

April 16, 2017 at 11:52 am Leave a comment

THE CORRECTIONS by JONATHAN FRANZEN

the-corrections
The-Corrections by Jonathan Franzen won the national book award in the US and was a finalist in the pulitzer.

Bookgroupers agreed the writing was great but many people felt it was unnecessarily long due to the inclusion of many tangents that went on for pages. The book is peppered with little essays on obscure topics such as the demise of American railways, metallurgy, and Lithuanian internet scams. These are all presented as back stories to one or other of the book’s characters but they rarely serve any real purpose in helping the reader understand those characters, or the overall story. They seem to be included for the the benefit of the author rather than the reader or the novel.

Similarly the book includes a lot of references to academic discussions of feminist and postmodernist philosophy, and name checks lots of the well known writers in those disciplines. But once again it achieves nothing within the novel, the purpose appears to be to persuade the reader that author has read this literature, and nothing more.

In addition to these frustrations with unnecessary length, Bookgroupers also found it hard to care about the story because they felt many characters were deeply unlikable. I thought it was hard to care about because its just a middle-class family drama where nothing particularly interesting happens. Its a very familiar world and I found it hard to see the point.

However, we all agreed that some of the writing beautiful and insightful. For example, there is a description of what it is like to have Parkinson’s that really makes you feel like you understand. I found reading this passage to be a very powerful experience. In places like this it was easy to agree that the writing was wonderful, that the author is some kind of genius capable of great insight and understanding, and the book is deserving of its fame.

However, for me these moments were too rare. Over 15 years pos -publication the book feels like a product of its time and place and class. It’s an exploration of a lot of ideas which were widely discussed, and considered important, by middle-class academic people across much of the Western world in the 90s and early 2000’s. It does have some great passages in it, like the one on Parkinsons, but I think there is a better explanation of its success.

At that time of its publication in 2001 the current obsessions of the literary book reading class in the Anglophone world were exactly those addressed in the novel.

How relevant it is now, at a later time, or to anyone who is not from that class and did not live through that period, Is questionable?

I would recommend it if you want a crash course on the academic feminism or the postmodernism of the 90s without having to go to university or read a whole lot of incomprehensible 20th century French philosophy. Or if you have an evening coming up when you will have to spend some time with academics from the humanities,. you could read this book and pick up all the right attitudes, the language they use, and some of the names of the writers and philosophers they will refer to, and manage to fit right in.

However, if your aim is to read a good book, i’d try something else.

 

April 16, 2017 at 9:32 am Leave a comment

LEAVES OF GRASS by WALT WHITMAN

leaves-of-grass

Leaves-of-Grass might be the most ambitious and arrogant book you will ever read, and surprisingly the most successful. In it Whitman is self consciously trying to create a nation, America – and many argue he succeeds. But if the nation inside the heads of many Americans is the one Whitman wrote, unfortunately the nation resting on the southern half of the continent of North America is not.

Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection. It was first published in 1855, but Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400′.

A very good, and short, American review written in 2005 reflects many of my thoughts about american attitudes to Whitman.

With the upcoming 150th anniversary, America’s poets and critics have found unmediated love for our most American poet, the man who came to shape our ideas of nationhood, democracy, and freedom.

Incredibly to me  it seems Whitman not only shaped American ideas, he knew that is what he was doing, that was his aim, and he was prepared to declare this ambition at the outset, apropro of nothing, and when he was nobody. Imagine writing this in your first, self published, collection of poems – he is so arrogant he reckons he is doing us a favour by allowing us, rather than some hero, to read his stuff.

Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the progress and freedom of the race,
Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

And he is so ambitious that he doesn’t just want to write a vision of America – he wants us to know that is what he is doing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,

Expecting the main things from you.

Americans say ‘it aint bargain if you can back it up’. IF so Whitman wasn’t bragging. Reading Leaves of Grass you can see why Whitman is considered America’s poet – not only because he says he is, but also because everything he says is now reflected in how Americans talk about themselves.

The book reads like the invention of the idea of America. It helped explain for me why some (most?) Americans and some Europeans seem so in love with the idea of America. Never having been there, I have not understood why these people speak of America in the way that they do – as the home of the brave and the free, the last resort to desperate, and so on. To me it has always been a failed and fading imperial overlord, rife with inequality, and the source of much of the world’s violence and dysfunction, rather than the home of the free.

However, reading Whitman i discovered where these people get their ideas from. He creates a very appealing vision of America as a democratic and equal society. It is a progressive, optimistic and individualistic vision.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

I found it very revealing and helpful to be reading this at the time we did –  in the wake of the Trump election. American politics, for my whole life time, seems to have been a progressive movement away from equality and freedom towards the rule of the many by the few. To me the Trump election was just another, admittedly extreme, step in that direction. So I have never understood America’s rhetoric about itself, and never less so than on the election of Trump.

But this book really helps explain the mismatch between rhetoric and reality. In stark contrast to the direction of modern American politics, in Whitman’s America there is a place for everyone. Everyone is equal and everyone can be who they want to be. If that’s the image that Americans have  of their country I can understand some of their attitudes and their talk.

However I find it impossible to match this vision, beautifully expressed though it is, with the reality that I’ve grown up with on my TV screen. All the images that have saturated my life show no connection to the beautiful ideas vividly evoked by Whitman. So while Whitman helps explain American rhetoric, he does not help explain American politics or American society.

On the contrary, both are even more difficult to understand after reading their national poet. You would think all politicians and activists would need to do is quote Whitman to make an opponent realize they’re heading down the wrong track but clearly that is not enough.

The word might be mightier than the sword but it seems the dollar is mightier than both.

Whitman seems to have been spectacularly successful in his huge ambition of creating a vision for a country. Americans have not only bought his vision, they have run around telling everyone about it, proclaiming how great is, even claiming to use military force to export it around the world – but they have failed to live it.

Reading that vision in the 21st century seems like an accusation rather than a celebration.

“The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well-off, just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.

(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)

Do you know so much yourself that you call the meanest ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and
the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?”

Excerpt From: Walt Whitman. “Leaves of Grass.” iBooks.

 

April 16, 2017 at 6:46 am Leave a comment

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