Tag Archives: literary conscience
Short Story: “Catamite, Catalyst, Catamount”–An Intended Source of “Queer Joy” for Those Affected By the November 2022 Shootings at a LGBTQ Nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado (People, the World is More with You Than It Might Appear)–story copyrighted by Victoria Leigh Bennett on January 15, 2022, All Rights Reserved with the exception of Fair Use Policy (short quotes in reviews/articles/essays)
Two Books of Traditionally-Shaped Petrarchan Sonnets on Home and Empire With a Contemporary Ethos and Twist–by Alex Guenther
Today, I am going to do something I rarely do, and review two books at once. They are by the same poet, Alex Guenther, a force to be reckoned with in the poetic world and widely known and celebrated on Twitter and other social networking sites for his poetic acumen. Being by the same author is not normally or naturally a reason to put them both in the same review, however, except that by that means I can best compare and contrast them for the reader, and hope to convince the astute consumer of good poetry that though they have certain distinct similarities, they are different enough for anyone to want to own both of them. They are available from various subsites, and as you can see from the image above, one need only go to bitly.com/sonnets2021 to locate these sites. But first to the conviction that these books are worth investing in for the small cost and the large satisfaction to be gained from reading them through.
The two books are respectively “the heave” and “the deodar seeds,” and they were simultaneously released. According to the author, they were begun during the original lockdowns of the first Covid period, which seems to have been a period of intense reflection and soul-searching by the author. The lack of capitalization in the words, according to Alex, a witty and intensely erudite soul, was due to the fact that they were composed on a phone, which called for easy manipulation; later, though still not due to any e.e.cummings-like assumptions of manifesto, this form of writing became preferred for its own sake, possibly a result of the poet’s self-aware but unassuming modesty. “the heave” is a book written more in reference to modern-day life in cities, particularly Eastern cities, as the author and his wife have resided for many years now in the East, and are now resident in Bangkok, Thailand, where Alex teaches and writes. “the deodar seeds,” in contrast, is a book about exploration, conquest and empires, and has a quite broad scope, treating not only of Eastern conquerors, explorers, and literary figures/saints, but also of a few Western or European ones.
Both books are Petrarchan sonnets, being fairly standard in rhyme scheme and meter, except for the odd sound effect or forced rhyme and an occasional extra syllable. Their style is similar, yet in both cases, the rhymes are often quite unique and highly imaginative, with a standard, expected rhyme being quite rare. As well, and this is a major and particularly attractive quality, the enjambment–or carrying over of meaning from the end of a line and resolving the thought with a portion of the next line instead of using end-stopped lines–the enjambment! It produces something of the juggling and oftentimes jarring rhythms of contemporary daily life, and prevents the poems from having a quality rhymed poetry is often criticized for, that of sounding jog-trot and bouncy, too unintentionally comic. Though Guenther has a succinct and piercing wit in the literary sense of the word “wit,” he is never foolishly comical or silly. In fact, though there is no pomposity about the two books at all, it is impossible to read them without reference to the intellectual qualities of the bright and far-reaching examinations of the poet’s chosen topics. In both books, there are many, many words and concepts introduced which would at first be quite foreign to an uninformed or not widely traveled Western person, but there is no reason at all to fear the encounter with these perhaps previously unencountered concepts or facts: Alex is always a good poetic host, and uses such words and concepts in a self-explanatory way, without being condescending.
Now, to the differences: though the two books, “the heave” and “the deodar seeds” are very alike in sonnet paradigms and generally in style, yet the pace of “the heave” is quicker, possibly to convey the haste and scramble of modern life, whereas the tempo of “the deodar seeds” is slower, more considering of all the explorations, discoveries, pilgrimages, and empires discussed. “the deodar seeds” deals with various colonial dreams, and the explorers, artists, holy figures, conquerors, and victims of these imperialisms. “the heave,” on the other hand, deals with the modern streets, shades of experience, and mental and emotional states of contemporary empires, the fragmented, dissonant, sometimes nightmarish echoes of contemporary personhood. There in fact is more of a personal, intense quality of reflection in “the heave,” for a total of 54 sonnets, whereas the 108 sonnets of “the deodar seeds” are personal mainly in the way Alex offers some of them as imaginative explorations of interior states of mind of various world-famous figures, a sort of dramatic monologue in sonnet form.
As a final means of making my points, I would like to offer two sonnets through “fair use” form of quotation, one of my favorites from each book. First, from “the deodar seeds”:
alaric on the walls let oil-black plumes of mingling smoke arise; the visigoths are taking rome. we've won mere plunder; little justice has been done. The vaunted roman dream, we've learned, applies to citizens deemed worthy in their eyes-- not streams of stateless refugees who've run to seek asylum from encroaching huns. they turn us back, and teach us we're despised. they mock our leather trousers and our shoes; we lead their armies; still they keep us down, and gothic blood has often stained these streets; we sought security, and were refused. we tried our best to serve the roman crown; perhaps they will respect us in defeat. The genius of the above is that without distorting the historical element, Alex Guenther has driven home the universal and topical elements of Alaric's discourse. Now, from "the heave," one of the resolving and latter sonnets: to a lotus o beautiful, for doubly floating; no-- say triply; rising from frog-spawn and mire, then hovering as pale empetalled fire on slender stem, amid the ukiyo or shifting world of transitory show in which we swim suspended, where desire breeds pain--where we, until our cells expire writhe blindly as the tadpoles down below. impossible, since nothing is beyond or separate from matter's pulsing swarms; impossible, since all is baited bluff, this apparition from a fetid pond; your gently glowing, pale empetalled form is floating briefly, beautiful enough.
This second sonnet of my quotation is consonant with the Buddhist view of life, which Alex is conversant with and which he avers is his preferred outlook. Nevertheless, he is not morose or gloomy, but instead maintains a humorous and gentle persona. He appears on Twitter on Thursdays at @PoetsCornerALW, curated by another poet whom I have recently reviewed–Arthur L. Wood–and also contributes tweets of the occasional haiku, which can be found on his profile timeline, or on your own timeline feed. Also, he is available for converse on two other sites: http://www.facebook.com/alex.guenther.104, and http://www.instagram.com/guentheralex. And, if after you have read the books, you would like to contribute further to a fine poet who clearly knows poetry, history, and human nature, you can do so at http://www.paypal.com/paypalme/guentheralex.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
“What Pecan Light”–A New “Song of the South” Arises in Strict Self-Examination and the Protestant Confessional Tradition of Witnessing, Through the Medium of Poetry
Just this year, the editor/teacher/professional poet Dr. Hannah VanderHart has given us a monumental though deceptively short book of poetry on Southern life, thought, and tradition which belies the suggestion that a book need be long to achieve a worthwhile thesis and goal. The book is What Pecan Light. While the book goes from picture to picture of Southern life, and growing up in a family tradition of ownership of a chicken farm and farming in general, using images of food, daily habits, work forms, recreation times and religious traditions to which the South remains committed, the past with its Civil War history and history of slave-owning is never only a part of the background, but informs in its seriousness and rhetoric the whole.
The lovingly executed papier-mache in the photograph from the front cover with its mythically descended formation of human silhouettes-becoming-trees (by Rachel DiRenna) is a sort of key to the structure of the book as a whole: I too have had Southern relatives wondering what possible shape the South can take next, if it continues to change so much in its traditions and reverences, and being caught up in false notalgias, false because betraying of basic humanity.
Others such as Jessica O. Stark and Joy Katz on the book’s back cover have communicated at succinct and short length the cultural and societal aspects of this book. Though brevity is often said to be the soul of wit, sometimes a book merits greater length and remark where possible, and it is to this end that I devote myself today, while calling to the readers’ attention their deservedly appreciative remarks.
The book is one of tightly woven individual poems taking place in a loosely put-together structure which allows for visiting and revisiting, layering and relayering, of themes and motifs. The traditions and culture of the Southern United States in the states with which the poet is familiar are examined in an elliptical slide going from facts to Southern topoi and from Southern topoi to facts. “Topoi,” of course, in Greek, or “loci” in Latin, are rhetorical places, places where things happen and where facts may or may not reign. Here, the topoi are richly illustrated by Southern images and lifestyle portraits of the daily life of a family whose past is affected by the ancestors whom they have been taught to reverence, but whom more recent documents or examinations expose as flawed by slaving. This experience, when one thinks of it, is a universal experience in the sense that an appreciation of the facts portrayed and the reactions of the present-tense family committed to a more just existence are experienced by anyone who has imperfect human ancestors (which is all of us). That slavery is the issue here in this book makes it particularly rich for an American audience trying to heal the deep divides of our time, many of the roots of which are buried in older times.
VanderHart’s book is a deeply and seriously wrought picture of a family whose traditions are in the process of renovation despite their otherwise deep Southern ties, as the mother-figure in the poem teaches the newest members about the slave-owning past and the attitudes of prejudice, the practices of repression, that have been perennial in the world every time a subject people have sought freedom and self-determination. Thus, the poetic voice throughout, while not denying some degree of nostalgia but treating it both with reverence and due suspicion, makes from her own consciousness a critical voice arising from the midst of these traditions and cultural ties. She examines them both as they stand separate and apart from the greater life of the whole United States, and as they form the source of the root of Southern loyalty to the whole, where it exists.
For Southerners–and this was true in my childhood in the not-quite-South also, in West Virginia where people regularly divide themselves according to whether they have Southern loyalties of a traditional sort or Northern loyalties of the “West Virginia went with the North” sort–loyalty to the United States has in the past been first and foremost loyalty to a Southern-style home atmosphere, welfare, and traditions unless one is a social critic as for example VanderHart is here in her role as poet. Thus, this “monumental” work, as I called it once before, is a new sort of Southern monument, a Southern testament, a testifying of a religious sort, as poetry always has been, of a word structure rather than a stone or metal structure, but in the public forum just as a literal statue of a Confederate general or widow would be. And it is both long overdue for all of us, Northerners and Southerners alike, and most welcome in its overwhelming gift of a new language plinth to stand in our mutual public square.
This book is available from Bull City Press, at 1217 Odyssey Drive, Durham, NC 27713, http://www.BullCityPress.com . It is also available from Amazon.com.
Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
Well, last night–I should never start anything at night, I know, because lately, my desire to have my poetry read has helped cultivate in me a blatant disregard for time, in other words, I stayed up all night wrestling with perhaps an Amazon, but certainly not an angel–last night, as I was saying before mad parenthetical remarks took over, I tried to find my poetry book on the Amazon site.
Though you might think this was ego, it was only partly so. Oh, well, some. Mainly, I was concerned to judge what difficulty readers were going to have finding my book on that site, since buying things like yarn and wrinkle cream and air fryers is a lot easier on Amazon, usually, than locating a book you’d like to read, unless it’s the latest bestseller. And I felt that I could pretty much anticipate that I didn’t have a great chance of being well-represented yet on Amazon, because 1) it’s only been 4-5 days since my publication date 2) poetry overall, unless it’s one of the “greatest hits” or a recent crowd favorite or critical success, doesn’t sell as well as prose, and 3) I can’t seem to get a consistent price from the different places selling it to report to you for you edification and (I hope) for encouragement to get it for yourself.
I mean, the publisher kindly sent me some bookmarks and flyers the other day to be handed out to people I distribute free copies to and others who might be interested, and the publisher’s price was listed on it as 8.99 pounds (in U.S. dollars, $11.99, though I don’t think that includes shipping costs yet). And on Book Depository, the last price I saw a few days ago was a little above $12, with free worldwide shipping. And now, on Amazon, the price was upward of $14, plus shipping, unless you will buy one of the reduced new or used copies from other sellers listed on Amazon. Obviously, I like money as much as the next person, but someone on Twitter mentioned the other day that brick-and-mortar stores actually return more money to the publisher and to the author than online sellers do, so I’ve no clue what exactly to tell you, except my goal is overall to get as many people reading my book as possible, and if you can afford to get it by ordering it from a brick-and-mortar store or purchasing it outright from one who is already carrying it, then that’s great, and supports local business, which it seems is what everyone is trying to do nowadays. But if on the other hand, you live in an area with an uncooperative book merchant who doesn’t do quality fiction or poetry (which I happen to think mine is), and if Amazon is your only ordering option, then like the man said, “Order and be damned!” Actually, what the man said was “Publish and be damned!” but you get the point. My main interest is in having you embark on the reading adventure through my book and having you trace the footsteps that I took in writing it (so yes, I guess there’s some ego involved, but also a desire for book-companionship).
But what did I find in Amazon, you ask? Well, I had a hard time finding any poetry books, at first, that weren’t among a handful of audiobooks, many of which seemed quite honestly to be more self-help books in verse than anything else. Then, when I got smart (and it takes a while to suss out Amazon’s search terms, they aren’t simply correct author and title, the way they should be and the way you wish they were), I typed in trickier terms. Finally, I was both relieved and dismayed to find my book: relieved because I found it at all, but dismayed because of where it was in the poetry section, on page 69 or so out of 75, after more than about six pages of other sorts of books (notably funeral books for writing in memorials!) had passed several times. And other poetry books were in the same location which looked like pretty good books to me. I like Amazon less than I used to for this experience, I have to say. For your handy information, in case you want to order my book from Amazon, here’s what will turn it up right away, quick and easy, if you type it in exactly this way, caps and all where needed:
paperback poetry books Bennett Poems from the Northeast
That’s all. Uncapped where necessary, no quotation marks or other punctuation. Easy as pie to do, but hard as all get out (at least for me) to have deciphered and figured out on my own.
At any rate, all grousing aside, I’m delighted to be finally in print and able to share these writing experiences with you, and I hope this helps you to get a copy of the book, and to enjoy it. My bewilderment aside, there are probably plenty of you out there who know how to do these things easily. All the best in reading and writing, Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
“An Incomplete List of My Wishes”–What a Title Does for a Book, and What a Book Can Do for Its Readers
First of all, let me introduce Jendi Reiter to those of you who may not be familiar with their work, as I must admit shamefacedly I was not myself until recently. To list all the awards and accolades they have received, I think I cannot do better than to quote the short biographical credit on the back of this fine book of short fiction: “Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love. Awards include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Poetry, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, the Wag’s Revue Poetry Prize, the Bayou Magazine Editor’s Prize in Fiction, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. Two Natures won the Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction and was a finalist for the Book Excellence Awards and the Lascaux Prize for Fiction.” Jendi is also one of the editors of the Writer’s Digest acclaimed website winningwriters.com, and a very kind, accommodating, and encouraging model for writers and artists. Their website is at JendiReiter.com and they can be followed at @JendiReiter on Twitter.
Now to the book itself, and that provocative and enticing title: An Incomplete List of My Wishes. How universal the title is, how it speaks to the complete human experience of having many goals, dreams, and wishes, which sadly and tragically sometimes, but also humorously and happily sometimes, we may or may not get to register with whatever recording angel or god we believe in. This book has the greatest virtue of many books which happen to be constructed with at least the permission of the recording angel of the gay experience, that it is accessible to everyone, is for everyone, is inclusive of every truth of the human being, no matter how flawed or partial that person’s individual life is: and it even more explains for everyone who is not a total moral idiot the gay lifestyle and experience, both as it is constituted in itself and as it intersects with the straight ones.
For, this book has one quality in particular which leads even a relatively unfamiliar reader through its maze of situations and conditions, lives and their pitfalls and victories, both major and minor, both saddening and joyous: I can do no better than quote the book itself for the key informing dramatic motif of the whole: “…but she…would henceforth always be someone chosen, someone who had said yes to herself” (p. 99, “The House of Correction”). The sympathetic characters in this book are also those who have said “Yes” to themselves, sometimes at great or even life-changing, life-risking costs. The book overall promotes courage as a feature of human life, as an answer even when the question is dire and unfair.
“Exodus,” the first short short bit of fiction beginning the book, is like the Biblical book that bears its name, a statement about the end of innocence and an objective correlative for the issue of mortality which crops up again and again in the book, not exclusively in relation to the issue of AIDS, but also in conjunction with those issues of indifference, brutality, imperfect love relationships which affect everyone, LGBTQIA+2 or straight. This book bridges the many gaps people imagine they have between them, and this short piece introduces the collection.
Four of the short stories function as an introduction and vade mecum to the novel Two Natures, as they are affecting and short excerpts from the characters’ lives from that novel. The stories are “Two Natures,” “Julian’s Yearbook,” “Today You Are a Man,”” and “Five Assignments and a Mistake.” Though I have not yet had the opportunity to read the novel in which these characters make a main appearance, their short essays in guiding us through the stages of awareness and growth of a gay man and his sister and cohort are fine as they are here, pieces capable of standing alone structurally and rhythmically.
The story from which the title is drawn, “An Incomplete List of My Wishes,” gains part of its sense of incompletion in the fictional element of the story from the fact that a death row inmate appears in it indirectly, who is at the point of ordering his last menu, the last life choice he will be able to make for himself. But the narrator of the story is the woman whose daughter he may or may not have killed, who is also wrapped up in contemplation of choices, last and lasting both.
“Waiting for the Train to Fort Devens, June 17, 1943” is a story “written” by another sort of recording angel, a photograph preserved of men on their way to war, men both doomed to die and fated to come back and live as survivors, their individual conflicts and choices recorded as well in the book of memory.
“Altitude,” as one might expect by the title, deals in clever and short order with the dizzying sweep of differing abilities to scale heights of human endeavor and experience.
The story “Memories of the Snow Queen,” a collection of fictional meditations and variations on a frightening theme from a children’s story in a manner related to that of A. S. Byatt, reveals a grotesque and overwhelmingly dysfunctional secret to a young woman attempting to reconnect with this fragment of her past.
To end off the book, Reiter has chosen a story of an adoption, “Taking Down the Pear Tree,” which along with a finely tuned portrait of all the human actors involved in such an endeavor, is also a meditation upon family, grief, and change as a structural and inevitable part of human life.
All in all, I am delighted to have read this book and to have thus encountered even indirectly the dramas and conundrums some other humans experience, with the residual obligation and joy of developing more understanding and warmth towards these, my fellow beings. That is always of course the point of good fiction, to give its readers a point d’appui for the extension of understanding, but in this book in particular, Jendi Reiter makes it overwhelmingly easy for a reasonable, willing, good reader to comprehend their characters and their own creative reasons for giving them the lives they did. Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)
In the midst of so much controversy in the contemporary world about what to do to help people, both women and men, to achieve their rights and to be treated equally by their societies and fellows in those societies, it is refreshing and uplifting to read a poet who has a whole-hearted belief that things can only improve, though she is not incognizant of the problems to be faced, it is clear both from her political involvements as they are reported in her brief biography1 and the determination in the forward-looking tone of her poem, which I will comment on here (it is not possible to print the whole poem, even though it is relatively short, because it is not in the public domain. Brief quotes only are allowed.)
As we are told in the biographical paragraph itself, “Fawziyya Abu Khalid was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [in 1955]. She studied in the United States, taking a degree in sociology, and has been teaching at the Girls’ University College of King Saud University….Her work celebrates the strength and abilities of women, as well as indicating her commitment to political concerns.”1
In her poem The Pearl, Abu Khalid compares the legacy of generations of Arabic women to the physical legacy of a pearl, handed down from grandmother to mother to her, to her own daughter (or niece, etc., it isn’t quite clear). “The three of you and this pearl/Have one thing in common,” she says, “simplicity and truth,” making the two terms one in a touching poetic figure which conquers ordinary language usage. As she predicts in her poem “The girls of Arabia will soon grow/to full stature.” She further notes that they will find their predecessor’s traces and will say “‘She has passed by this road,'” which in her view, by the end of the poem, leads to “the place of sunrise” and “the heart’s direction.”
Though this more or less fairly reports the entirety of the poem’s movement in time and space, it cannot fairly represent the poem’s delicacy and beauty, as fine as a pearl of great value itself. It is humbling to realize that even though women all over the world are still having major problems getting recognized for their contributions and accomplishments, that a woman in one of the perhaps harder places to achieve this feat is so hopeful and so full, again, of strong determination, both for herself and for others to follow her. We all should have such inspiring and leading women in our lives, and she is one not only for Arabic women, but for women of the world.
This poem can be read in its short but lovely entirety in English translation (performed by Salwa Jabsheh and John Heath-Stubbs) on page 508 in the same volume which I mentioned in my last post just above, for which, see below:
(1In this case, both the poem and my biographical data are drawn from the large compendium text of world literature which I have now had occasion to mention several times on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers back in 1995, and is still valuable today.)
A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award. The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.
From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century. Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation. I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté). Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions: for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten. It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike. We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly. This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime. If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work. Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc. The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused. This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly. Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline. But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.
I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again. There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat. There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided. It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.
The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with. To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary. Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them. I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus. And so on–“. Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel. There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation: this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting. Do give it a read soon: you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.
José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness is one of the few novels I have read which manages to use extended metaphor in such a way as not to make me weary of the imposition of values on fact. What I mean by this is that extended metaphor, if sustained for long enough in a work, makes the work into a sort of allegory in which the reader is always busy imputing other values to literal words and things. An example is of course Pilgrim’s Progress, in which we are “clued in” to the values which must be read in by having certain words and names capitalized and used repeatedly to illustrate the point the author is trying to make. But the main value which Saramago uses in an allegorical way, or as an extended metaphor, is “blindness.” And he keeps the fear of blindness closely enough tied to the actual condition that we can perceive his characters’ predicaments for ones likely to be suffered by blind people in a real-life, literal setting. As well, the characters do not stand for abstract qualities, but are kept very closely drawn as real people, with realistic feelings and impulses. They have no names except for example “the doctor,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the doctor’s wife,” etc. Thus, though their situation is allegorical, they are people whom we can see as very like us in a novel (meaning here “new” or “unprecedented”) situation.
The basic plot is this: one day, while driving in his car, a man is suddenly stricken with a new kind of blindness, not the “dark” blindness which people have always suffered before, but a kind of “white blindness” in which people see only a white mist before their eyes. From this uncertain beginning, the disease spreads, even affecting eye doctors and policemen and other people in every walk of life, while authorities try not only to stop the spread of the illness by guessing how it spreads (which no one is actually ever sure of) but also by confining to deserted public buildings those who have gone blind, in the suspicion that they may be contagious. Our focus is on a small group of characters who have interacted in an ophthalmologist’s office, who all happen to wind up in the same ward of an empty mental hospital used to confine the blind. The ophthalmologist himself has gone blind just as he was attempting to do research on this startling new condition, and only his wife, who has pretended to be blind so that she cannot be separated from him and can go along to help, is fully a witness to what is happening.
What happens, but very gradually, is that order breaks down and chaos reigns, as blind crooks lord it over the other inmates and make them pay with valuables and women’s sexual favors for their very food rations. The soldiers who are supposed to be monitoring the activity and the distribution of food are powerless (by choice) to affect change, because they are afraid to get too close to the blind lest the condition is contagious by sight of them. They in fact repeatedly threaten to shoot any of the blind who step too close. The halls are covered in excrement and other offal, including sometimes the bodies of those who have died, because there is no one in charge who can restore order and who will make sure that all the dead are buried. Thus, the halls of the mental hospital quickly become more and more polluted with things which actually are likely to cause contagion. The doctor as a figure of wisdom often has good ideas about what can be done, but it’s his wife who as a figure of mercy “steals the show” in the book. Because she inexplicably remains sighted, and resists or seems to have no selfish impulses, she is the moral compass of the book.
The characters’ blindness is basically the condition all humankind is in as it goes through its own petty or even important concerns from day to day, unaware of others or not taking them into account. Their new blindness forces them to calculate what others owe them and they owe others, and illuminates the human condition of desperation which can arise when there is not enough food, clothing, shelter. It is a question posed by life as to whether or not humans will become savages when they are driven into close competition for basic needs and services. They are only able to hear of the outside world when someone admits to having a radio, but then the voices from outside go dead, and the radio’s batteries are exhausted just after, so they must assume that things are chaotic on the outside as well.
Because of a fire, the seven characters find their way out of the hospital and into the broader world outside with the doctor’s wife leading them due to her still having her sight, but now they “see” that the mental hospital they were confined in is an apt symbol for the life outside in the world. Everyone has gone blind, domestic animals are eating from dead bodies, people are breaking into the homes of others in order to have somewhere to sleep safely. The doctor’s wife finds a small food store, and they are able to stay in a safe place, but their meetings with others everywhere are fraught with fear. They are afraid even to let others know that they have someone with them who can see, lest she have too many importunate demands placed on her or figuratively be torn limb from limb.
At this key juncture, I’m going to stop my synopsis, not because any highly unlikely series of events takes place and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because the novel is resolved with such feeling and compassion and insight that I don’t want to ruin your reading. This book is so deceptively simple as it moves from step to step, and we can understand each step in the series of events that take place. We can “see” and feel how and why the people act as they do; the motivations that Saramago gives them are easily accessible to our own feelings, as we put ourselves in their place. This book is a cautionary tale which asks humankind when it will begin to “see,” to respond to others adequately and to save itself thereby. From having opposed interests, you against me, the characters learn to cooperate and have lesson after lesson before them of what happens to those who cannot compromise. Above all, this work is a masterwork about ordinary people, even those among them who find it possible to be extraordinary. The doctor’s wife, the moral center of the book, is “sighted” in more than one way: she knows that it is through no virtue of her own that she has not lost her sight too, so she is always ready to help those who rely upon her, because she for some unknown reason has an advantage. This is not a matter of superiority of status or condition, but merely a matter of chance. Blind chance, as one might say. Thus, we all of us have some chance of someday being extraordinary because we are able to help someone else, and yet we will only be people with no particular status or name other than “the doctor’s wife,” “the doctor,””the girl with dark glasses,””the boy who cried for his mother,” etc. This is the promise and the state of all humanity, to be able to extend itself to others empathetically when necessary, if we only take advantage of the opportunity. This is the uplifting message of José Saramago’s book Blindness. I hope that you will have a chance to read it soon.
“The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay”–or, Incitement, the Turn Against Repression, and Outright Rebellion
Once again, a younger person has been instrumental in getting me to read a fiction he has enjoyed, and once again, the person is my nephew, Charles. In this case, it was a slightly longer proceeding, because from the time I continually saw him sitting around engrossed in The Hunger Games trilogy to the time when I could pry the books from his fingers to read them was longer. I’m just joking, though, about his reluctance: he was quite enthusiastic about having me read the series. And as I read and let him know over the phone what book exactly I was on, he eagerly asked each time “How do you like it?” I was able to be just as happily engaged with the books as he expected, though I did point out that in this book as in others I’ve read in the YA category from time to time, the author has neglected to observe some grammar rules, such as the difference between “who” and “whom.” It happens to everyone from time to time, because our society has become so casual in its observance of some parts of grammatical precision that even quite well-read and literate people have been known to slip up. And of course, his rejoinder was to remind me of the last book he had me reading, The Wide Window from the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, in which a character named “Aunt Josephine” continually corrects grammar (I also reviewed that book for this site). So now, on to the review of the events of the books themselves, which will probably be shorter, however, due to the fact that I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts, but instead want to leave those who have not yet read the books or seen the movies to their own discoveries.
The first thing I noticed about the books, even early on, and which I was surprised about and would highly commend is that in them, Suzanne Collins didn’t pull her punches. Tragedies were not just things which took place in the past, well-drawn and well-liked characters die and suffer in the present as well, and even though there are repairs which can be made surgically to the competitors in the games, or to those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, more and more the sense grows in the books that some things can’t be changed, some misfortunes must be lived with, some bad things will have to be lived through again and again and again in the memories and sorrow-filled dreams of the main characters, those who survive, that is. This is a series of books which, with a few changes, a very few indeed, could easily be marketed to an adult audience. And yet, the difficulties approached by the characters are ones easily understandable and accessible to a youth audience: it’s just that the book makes no attempt, fortunately, to “dumb down” or “soft-pedal” suffering, no matter whose it is. There is no condescension in these books, and I can see why they have easily won a loyal following among parents and young people alike.
Next, I appreciated the slight amount of retelling that was necessary in the later two books in order to link them with the first. Often, authors make the mistake of retelling large swatches of the plot or of characters’ histories in series, in order to play to the market either of people who were not paying attention in the earlier parts or to pick up new readers who are too indifferent to begin at the beginning. Collins has clearly chosen to regard her audience as both intelligent and energetic enough to start with the first book and keep on going, and trusts herself to maintain their interest. That her trust is not misplaced is I think obvious in the great enthusiasm with which people discuss the series.
Finally, what people these days call “the story’s arc” is both very accomplished and very insightful about the nature of slavery, rebellions, and resolutions of conflicts. I have said the story begins with the “incitement” that the Capitol offers the known-to-exist twelve districts by forcing them to participate in the Hunger Games; follows this up with “the turn against repression,” which draws in some of those originally with the Capitol and aligns them with the gradually more and more rebellious people in the districts, which begin to revolt; and concludes with the picture of a whole society as it experiences “outright rebellion,” including quite intelligent assessments of both sides in the combat as first of all run by individuals with conflicting aims and desires, whatever their side. Among the thanks which Suzanne Collins includes to her colleagues, friends, and family in the back of the third volume, are these tributes: “Special love to my late father, Michael Collins, who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace, and my mother, Jane Collins, who introduced me to the Greeks, sci-fi, and fashion (although that last one didn’t stick)….” Certainly, these dedications are quite apt, as the force of them shows everywhere in the books (even in the playful tweaking of the nose of the “fashion police” who appear in the series). I would gladly recommend these books for their teaching abilities and their warmth of heart, their ability to educate young people in both their methods of forming allegiances and their gradual and growing awareness of when something isn’t as it should be. These books, like the folk song taken from Scripture, proclaim “to everything there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Only, having read them, young people may well emerge with a stronger sense of the right time for each and every purpose which confronts them. These books, far from being just for entertainment, are for the mind and the spirit as well, and I can think of nothing better to advise than that adults as well as young people read them, not just to keep an eye on what their children are reading, but to keep an eye on their own strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and impulses as well. This is a family book in the best sense of the term.
I can remember the first time I was curious enough to mention Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends to another friend who reads, one whose tastes are perhaps a little less specialized than mine. She said, “You probably wouldn’t like her; it’s not really literary fiction.” I persisted, and she said “Well, it’s more like popular fiction, kind of gossipy and low-key. No big symbols or literary stuff to interpret, it’s mostly just about people’s lives in a small town in Ireland, and how they change when exposed to social currents from Dublin.” So, I thought, well, I’ll see the movie, which got some acclaim, and in which Minnie Driver starred, I wasn’t sure in what role; that seemed like a good way to approach the thing.
But something came up, and I missed the local showings of the movie, and by the time everything was over, I had gone on to something else. This made me all the more curious when a copy of the book fell into my hands from a free book shelf (don’t ever believe that it really happens that way–it didn’t “fall into” my hands, I regularly prune certain free book shelves with effort and abandon to get books I think I might like to read).
True enough, when I read the book blurb, it didn’t seem like my kind of book; for one thing, it was about a hometowny little friendship between two girls who go on to university together, and it sounded fairly humdrum. No Pulitzer or Nobel there. Then I started to read. I found other reasons not to get too excited about the book; for one thing, it seemed to have a number of places in which the dialogue that should logically have been in the mouth of one character came from another character, or there was a typo, or one character’s name seemed to be given for another character’s. This was a minor distraction, however, once I got involved in the story.
What I found was that the author was a penetrating judge of character, and though most of her creations were young and just starting out in life, she had a knack also for writing about the older people in the book and their conflicts and disappointments. Though the young university students and their cohorts are spoken of as the “circle of friends” once or twice in the book and are the central focus, by the end of the book the whole cast has become one whose lives have importance to the reader. It’s as if we are having a gossip about them all with the village maven. Every character, no matter how minor, has a fate or an ending, or a new beginning, and though there are no major surprises in the way they turn out, yet everything develops satisfactorily and in line with one’s sense of poetic justice. This treatment, though it is decidedly not literary in the sense of showing just how arbitrary life can actually be, and how ironies can multiply and interact, is still the source of a satisfactory read. After all, there are also instances in real life when people do get what’s coming to them, whether for good or for ill, and those can also be written about: not everything is some huge black catastrophic event or supplies a constantly pointed little fictional essay that baits the reader and leads him or her to expect what isn’t delivered and to be disappointed as a source of entertainment.
Which is to say, when all is said and done, that Maeve Binchy delivers no more and no less than the blurbs have contracted for: she is a reliable and percipient author who, though perhaps a bit lingeringly romantic or sentimental, never puts the romance or the sentiment in the position of having to carry the entire load of the plot effects. Circle of Friends, though not a book I would necessarily find it important to reread in order to get anything I didn’t get the first time, might become a soothing anodyne that I would read again because it reassures me about humanity in the main. I seem to remember that I read of Binchy’s death some time back, and I can now see why her devoted readers created such a stir about her potential absence: she has a kindly, open, wise, and perceptive mode of writing that while not pretending to be full of literary tricks and technical achievements is nevertheless full of human warmth and good humor. Now I suppose all that remains is sometime to watch the movie and see if the movie magnates have managed to capture the work of her great heart on film.