Ironweed by William Kennedy
Doug suggested this book, written in the late seventies but set in thirties Albany (one of a trilogy, 'the Albany cycle').
It features down-and-out Francis Phelan, who, many years ago, ran away from his wife and family after dropping and killing
his baby son while probably drunk, and the various characters from his past, many dead, some by his own violent hand, whom
he hallucinates and converses with as he tries to come to terms with his life and seek redemption.
At the time of reading the book I thought it was brilliant, but now I come to write about it I find it hard to recall, and at this point my
recollection of our discussion is hazy, too. I think this may not be simply because I have been very busy, but also something to do with
the novel itself and a chief conclusion about it that I do remember we came to.
I think everyone agreed with Doug that the depiction of the underside of Albany life under the Great Depression was wonderful -
searing and vivid - and that the narrative voice, lyrical but sharp - 'gray clouds that looked like two flying piles of dirty socks' - was
superb. We spent, I remember, a fair bit of time talking about this, and about Francis's character and motives at various points in the
action - his violence and his kindness, his innate wit, his guilt and his need for atonement and redemption. But then I posed the question,
What was the novel supposed to be about? I wasn't sure of the answer, and I had noticed that in none of the contemporary
reviews I'd read had the question been answered either, with one or two reviewers giving what I thought undue significance to minor
incidents, as if they were at sea with the meaning of the book. Doug had to think for a moment, but then said, Well, that,
redemption, that was what it was about. It's true that this is a big preoccupation of the book, but it didn't seem entirely satisfactory as
a summing up of its theme. At one moment in the action, after all these years Francis returns to his wife and family for an evening,
and this indeed is Francis's chief way of finding redemption. A thought that occurs to me now, however, is that since he doesn't stay,
and since the final section in which he returns and stays for good is, we decided, only a dream, any redemption is in fact somewhat
shaky. Later in the discussion Ann would say that in fact she didn't find Francis's brief return to his family very believable, and now
that everyone thought about this, they didn't either. I said that one strong idea in the book was that it's so easy to fall through the
cracks in society - Francis was once the head of a respectable household and Helen, his companion, was once an
upper-middle-class girl with a sparkling future as a musician ahead of her - though again this didn't seem to serve as a unifying
theme. (I and others said we were moved to tears by the final, tragic scene concerning Helen, as well as other moments, but
Jenny said she hadn't been moved to tears at all.) Someone said that they thought the point of the book was to depict the
Irish-American society of Albany, which also seemed true.
By now we felt a bit lost, and the discussion was tailing off, Ann saying somewhat conclusively that she felt the book was somehow
better in the sum of the parts than in the whole. John, not wanting however to abandon the novel, commented that the narrative voice -
and Francis's hallucinations - made it very psychological: the interest is in Francis's state of mind, and in the state of mind of Helen
whose point of view we take at one point - and that that's what makes it so dynamic as a social commentary: we share the emotional
experience of those at the brunt of the Depression. John said that he thought this was a great feat for an author, Kennedy, who had
trained as a journalist: unlike Hemingway, for instance, he was able to shift from objective social commentary to that deeply
psychological dimension. The point John was leading up to then occurred to others of us simultaneously: that, in spite of this very
psychological dimension, the book was nevertheless an essentially journalistic project - Kennedy is indeed on record as having said
he wanted to map in his novels the stratum of Albany society hitherto ignored - and that this is why for us it lacked the unifying thrust
and lasting emotional effect of a novel.
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
This 1950 novel, Doris Lessing's first, opens with a newspaper article entitled 'Murder Mystery' starkly reporting the murder of
Rhodesian farmer's wife Mary Turner by her houseboy who has confessed to the crime. The first chapter then goes on to filter through the
puzzled viewpoint of a putative outsider the hush-hush reaction of the local community to the event, before moving back to the hours
in which the death was discovered and dealt with by the local Sergeant and, more directly, by the somewhat bullying neighbouring farmer,
Charlie Slatter. Here the narration takes a more clearly - or apparently - omniscient stance, entering the mind of the Turner's young
farming assistant, Tony Marston, only recently employed and arrived from England, but, while authorially knowing in tone, continues to
withhold from the reader the precise workings of the minds of the other two men. Thus we share Marston's puzzlement at the reaction
of the other two men to Mary's corpse. He clearly knows that the murder has resulted from some unusual relation between Mary and
her houseboy Moses (though the narrative also withholds precisely what he knows), but feels silenced about it and frustrated
that they appear to insist on a more mundane explanation. Most of all he is shocked that they clearly regard Mary with hatred and
distaste - '[an] almost hysterical look of hate and fear' - all their sympathies being for her husband, Dick. Finally, however, as the
first chapter comes to a close, the narration spells out what we are told Dick will come to understand after some time in Rhodesia,
before he succumbs to the denial necessary for surviving as an accepted member of white South African society:
'Mary Turner ... had let the side down. But even she, since she was dead, was no longer a problem. The one fact that remained still
to be dealt with was the necessity for preserving appearances ... it was 'white civilization' fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in
the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, 'white civilization' which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly,
a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and
nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners' failure.'
Even before the murder, the Turners are failing the 'white civilization'. This is spelled out early on in the chapter as the Turners are
introduced to us. We will learn later that Dick is a failing farmer, and we are told at the outset that the Turners, in their crumbling
shanty-like house, are too much like 'poor whites' for comfort:
'Why, some natives (though not many, thank heavens) had houses as good; and it would give them a bad impression to see white people
living in such a way ... [The Turners] apparently did not recognise the need for esprit de corps; that, really, was why they were hated.'
The first chapter ends with an account of Marston's subsequent career, a low-key descent to the office work he left England to escape,
its ending having the form and minor key of a completed sad story. The sadness is associated with Marston, and it appears at this point
that the murder has been displaced and wiped away narratorially in just the way that the white Rhodesian community has done.
Earlier, however, as Marston struggles with the manner and approach of the Sergeant and Slatter, he thinks: '...the important thing,
the thing that really mattered ... was to understand the background, the circumstances, the characters of Dick and Mary, the pattern of
their lives', and the second chapter begins what constitutes the bulk of the book: a retracing of Mary's trajectory from infanthood
to her murder.
It's a tale of a childhood of hardship - a drunken railway-official father, the loss to dysentery of siblings, an embittered and grieving mother
- replaced and indeed wiped away by the enjoyable and freeing experience of boarding school and then life as a working single woman
in a small town. But although Mary with her ordered life and wide social circle now thinks of herself as happy, she is clearly damaged:
she can't make close relationships, is repelled by sex and shows other signs of immaturity. By the age of thirty she is still wearing
'little-girl' style clothes and prolonging the experience of boarding school by living in the Girl's Club. In other words, she is a misfit,
which (in the name of esprit de corps) she cannot be allowed to be, and indeed is afraid of being. Succumbing therefore to the
inevitable pressures of her social circle, she hastily and unwisely marries Dick Turner, who takes her back to the rural isolation and
hardship she once escaped. We then follow - for the greater bulk of the book - her descent into depression as her relationship with
Dick proves arid and the farm fails and the couple sink further and further into poverty.
Ann, who had suggested the book, said that the main word that summed up her impression of it was 'relentless', and everyone murmured
agreement. Mary's hardship on the farm, and her emotional deprivation and alienation, are of course relentless, and her sense of the
relentlessness of the climate, the hot sun beating down on the uninsulated roof of the house, is vividly created. However, there was a
sense too that everyone in the group had found the book itself - and the experience of reading it - relentless. People had also been left
uncomfortable about its politics: although it is clearly meant as a criticism of apartheid, people felt that there were blind spots, perhaps
inevitable since, as Ann said, Lessing was after all a product of the regime she was trying to critique. Jenny said she had wondered if the
fact that Moses ends up murdering Mary was, in spite of the author's intentions to critique, a capitulation to the stereotype of the
native espoused by the South African white community (ie natives just murder, rape and steal), and others had uncomfortably
wondered this too.
John commented on the narrative mode of the book, which is very much 'tell not show'. He felt it was more of an essay than a novel:
Mary's situation and psychology are explained to us, with little dramatisation, ie without dialogue and action. (He pointed to one rare
moment of dramatisation in the impersonal and objective account of Mary's progress and downfall, when Mary has vented her fury against
Dick for his farming failure and has ended up weeping, and Dick 'looked at her for a long time as she sat there, sobbing; and then said
sardonically, "OK boss." ' The author goes on to comment: 'Mary did not like it at all; for his sarcastic remark said more
about their marriage than she had ever allowed herself to think', and John suggested that that final comment - that the
remark said more - could be almost a half-conscious realisation on the part of Lessing of the need for dramatisation
that in general the novel failed to achieve.) The psychologies of Dick, Charlie Slatter and Tony Marston are also made plain via explicit
narrative statement, and the attitudes of all of them are authorially commented on in relation to their social and political significance. Yet
although the narrative in this respect has the mode and tone of omniscience, it does not enter the mind of Moses: he remains as alien
and 'other' to the reader as he does to Mary - more so, since Mary becomes emotionally entangled with Moses in a way that is left
unclear to the reader. Certainly our group were unclear about it. Mary's first encounter with Moses occurs when she takes charge of
the farm while Dick is suffering a bout of malaria (a consequence, in Charlie's eyes, of his bad farming). Moses, at that time one of
the farm workers, is challenging towards Mary, and, imbued with conventional hatred towards the natives, her response is fury and
vengeance: she whips him across the face with a sjambok, leaving a permanent scar. Later he becomes the houseboy, and finding
her broken down and weeping, he brings her a drink of water. However, we didn't agree with the blurb on the back of Jenny's
paperback edition that 'lonely and frightened, Mary turns to Moses, the black cook, for kindness and understanding'.
Moses' apparent kindness here is fraught with irony: the initial incident that had resulted in her whipping him had concerned his
request for a drink of water which Mary had refused, and although we can infer that Mary is now touched by his attention,
there is something of pressure in the way he makes her drink, and of a conscious demonstration of a shifting of power, which
leaves her fearful and resentful. Mary's attitude to Moses continues to be ambivalent, and Moses' towards her seems
contradictory, both solicitous and resentful. Finally, the day before the murder, Tony Marston discovers them in a situation
of physical intimacy - Moses is dressing Mary and Mary's gestures are those of a sexually satisfied woman - and Mary, trying
in the corrective presence of the white man 'to get back the command she had lost', uses Marston to expel Moses (now
standing with a 'malevolent stare') from the house. It is presumably this betrayal that prompts Moses to murder Mary in
the early hours two days later, in revenge. However, Ann said that she still didn't grasp, on a psychological level, why
(apart from racist stereotyping) Moses should actually murder her, or why, in the following hours, Mary knows he will come
back to do so, and waits, frightened but eventually passively resigned, for her fate. Everyone in the group felt the same.
I said that although the murder might not seem to work on a psychological level - and might appear to our present-day
eyes to reinforce racial stereotypes - it was intended as symbolic: both Mary and Moses disrupt and threaten the status
quo by their misfit status and their behaviour - as John pointed out, Moses, as a missionary boy, educated and prepared to challenge, steps
outside the bounds allowed him - and, according to the dictates of that status quo, both must be destroyed for its
preservation. They are both symbolic, too, of the fact that the status quo is in fact destructive to both sides. Everyone
felt that this was right. We felt it an irony, however, that, in spite of the fundamental explanatory mode of the novel,
we were left with a sense of not knowing the precise nature of the relationship between the two.
I commented that I had read an article suggesting that there was another racist stereotyping in the way that Moses appears to be identified,
indeed conflated, with the bush and with nature red in tooth and claw. The narrative places him as a threatening presence in the bush
while he waits in the night to kill Mary (and sends him back there afterwards), a bush which to Mary is unknown, unknowable and
frightening, and with which the darkness merges him. As he strikes her with his knife, 'the bush avenged itself: that was her last
thought. The trees advanced in a rush, like beasts, and the thunder was the noise of their coming.' I had also read a critique of
the book that found racism in the narrative comment perjoratively opposing Charlie Slatter's slash-and-burn farming methods to Dick's
nature-respecting (though unsuccessful) mode, since in passing it equates Slatter's method with that of the natives (which, as the group
commented, is small-scale and therefore not destructive in the way Slatter's factory-type farming is). Finally, Doug and I both said we
had been deeply unsettled by the final narrative comment on Moses as he walks off into the bush to wait for his capture, which is also
part of the closing narrative comment of the book:
'...what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his
completed revenge, it is impossible to say.
It is as if the narration, and the author, are colluding with the white settlers' view of a native's mind as impenetrable, and indeed, of no
significance or interest. Yet it is quite clear that the book is intended as a condemnation of the attitudes and structures of apartheid,
and our general conclusion on the evening of the discussion was a reiteration of the notion that the book was of its time.
However, looking back at it now in order to write this, I feel that Lessing was far more conscious in her method than appeared to us
(and some other commentators). Having looked again at the first chapter with its very explicit and ironically critical comments on the
white settlers' attitudes, I now find it impossible not to see this final statement as also deeply ironical. In addition, while on the evening
of the discussion we considered Lessing's explanatory and largely non-dramatic mode to be simply old-fashioned story-telling with
drawbacks of non-engagement for the reader, it seems to me now that Lessing is consciously manipulating omniscience, and
subjectivity and objectivity, to make a political statement. As I outlined at the outset, the narrative of the first chapter moves from the
total impersonality of a brief newspaper report through the puzzling perspective of an outsider, in towards the perspective of the
locals, and finally (partially) into the mind of Tony Marston, all underpinned by an ironically knowing authorial tone that signals
deliberate authorial manipulation. This constitutes a formal (ironical) enactment and then subversion of the callous objectification
by the white settlers of the natives. While the novel in general adopts the 'tell not show' mode, as it moves towards the crisis and
Mary waits to be killed, it closely adopts her tortured interiority, and in fact the conflation of Moses with the bush is Mary's, not the
author's. ('...the bush avenged itself; that was her last thought [my bolds]). And, as we had observed,
in spite of the overall instructive authorial tone, the narration is not in fact omniscient. It seems to me now that the fact that both
Moses' interiority and the precise nature of the ultimate relationship between Mary and Moses remain unexplored is a political
authorial choice. What threatens the status quo of apartheid, and of any repressive system, is blurring of the lines, any subversion
and uncertainty. The precise nature of the relationship is kept deliberately blurred and uncertain by the author as a formal playing
out of that subversion: it subverts the otherwise knowing narrative mode.
However, I have to say that none of this was clear to any of us on a first reading of the novel, and I think perhaps that the impersonal,
explanatory nature of the bulk of it did make for the lack of engagement that John discussed - a lack of emotional engagement leading
to a lack of engagement of our attention - as well as perhaps contributing to our sense of the novel as 'relentless.'
Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
This was one of those rare occasions when those present were unanimous in praise of a book. A short novel, Voyage in
the Dark concerns the story of Anna, brought to England from the West Indies at the age of eighteen by her stepmother after her father's death, and
then abandoned in a strange cold country to make her own way, uneducated and deprived of the family money. Starting off as a chorus
girl in a touring company, she soon falls into financial dependence on a man who is only amusing himself with her sexually, and drifts
perforce from there into a kind of high-class prostitution, destitution and despair.
Although it was written in 1934, and set in 1914, we were hugely impressed by how very much ahead of its time it was both
in the issues it addresses and in its prose style. As Mark, who had suggested the book, said, it exposes the hypocrisy of an
upper-class Edwardian society in which sexual exploitation of women was the norm, and the contempt for women in general and
their lowly status within families, and touches on postcolonial issues long before they were widely addressed - as Creole, Anna is
both seen as exotic and despised. But all of this is conveyed in an entirely non-explicit way via Anna's first-person narration, which
simply replicates her experience as the events unfold, relating only what people say and do and her feelings as events overtake her.
There's an apparent simplicity to the prose that echoes her innocence, and perhaps her lack of status and power, but in fact it's very
sophisticated. It's economical rather than simple and, as the novel progresses, slips seamlessly into Anna's memories of the West
Indies, her lost paradise (though of course the place where the seeds of her doom were set), often without punctuation, in a way
that re-creates the fluid thought processes of memory. Therefore the novel is chiefly psychological - and thus very modern -
creating layers of consciousness which the reader shares, and the effect is very powerful. In my view, too, to make a reader share
the experience of oppression - as Toni Morrison also does - is in addition very political.
However, perhaps because of the lack of explication, John had wondered to me beforehand if Rhys had actually been aware of the
significance of the issues raised by her story, which is famously autobiographical. Mark was in no doubt that she was, and spoke of
Anna's bitter understanding of what was happening to her, and why. There was some demurring here: Jenny thought Anna was hugely
innocent: she seems to have no idea of the shallow designs upon her of the man she first takes up with, Walter Jeffries, and can't see,
as the present-day reader can, the signs that he's about to throw her over. But as Mark, said, Anna learns. However,
because of that
lack of explicitness, those lessons are only implicit, unvoiced, which I'd say creates a powerful sense of the trap that Anna, and women
in her situation, are in - a social trap and a trap of silence.
Ann expressed amazement that the book had never been popular - before the years-later publication of Rhys's Wide Sargasso
Sea(which we discussed here), it had fallen out of print, and has never since achieved the
same popularity. Ann thought that this was because people simply don't want to confront the issues it raises, and the feelings of
discomfort and loss and depression that it so accurately (and beautifully) recreates. I said that I didn't think I'd ever read another book
showing so accurately - or even at all - the feelings one has when one is despised simply for being a woman, and everyone agreed.
Jenny and I said we could remember the deflation we felt, at a much later date in history, when we were young and men treated us,
as they do Anna, with sneering amusement, but none of us could think of other novels that acknowledged that, not even
self-consciously feminist ones that tend rather to depict women's anger or attempt redress by portraying women as powerful.
Doug now said that the one negative thing he would say was that he found the book depressing, and Ann and I agreed that we had
too, but for none of us did this detract from our huge appreciation of it, and even Trevor, who had expected not to like it since he'd
hated Wide Sargasso Sea, said he'd found it wonderful.
Turbulence by Chico Buarque
It's some time now since we discussed this book, Trevor's suggestion, and my main memory, now that the discussion has receded
in time, is that although we all found it a very quick and even compulsive read, most of us said that in the end we weren't left particularly
affected by it. I have to say though that, looking back, the events of the book, and its atmosphere, have stayed with me quite vividly.
In fact, those events are not easy to relate, since right from the outset there is doubt as to whether all of them really happen, or whether
at least some of them are merely possibilities imagined by the first-person narrator, a disaffected young man from a moneyed family who spends the novel more
or less in a state of flight through a city of corruption, violence and uncertainty that is clearly the author's home city of Rio de Janeiro.
Told in a breathless and immediate present tense that takes the reader right into the action, and in a riffing prose that recalls the
author's earlier career as a jazz musician, the novel opens as the unnamed narrator spies an unwanted visitor through the door of his
flat. Immediately we are in the realm of uncertainty and paranoia. To begin with, the narrator doesn't know who the visitor can be;
we just know that he has cause to worry. Finally, as the unanswered visitor turns away, the narrator recognises him: someone from his
past he doesn't want to see. The reader doesn't find out the visitor's identity, however: what's at issue is the narrator's paranoia
- justified or unjustified (we just don't know) - as he watches the visitor walk away in the street below. The fact that he doesn't
look up tells the narrator that the visitor knows he's being watched, which in turn means he knows the narrator is there,
which means the narrator needs to escape immediately. As he does so, dressing quickly and leaving the flat, he imagines the visitor stopping his taxi and rushing back to catch
him out, a scenario so lengthy and detailed that it has the ring of reality, and indeed likelihood. Thus is established the novel's
unique and disorienting mode of slippage between actuality and possibility, and its theme of the thin line between the two -
the loss of control and the reality of awful possibility when social order breaks down. We follow the narrator as (escaping his
unwanted visitor) he travels to his rich sister for money, tries escape to the farm where he was happy as a child only to find it
taken over by criminal squatters whom in turn he must escape, steals jewels from his sister and gets involved in a police heist
back at the farm.
The trouble was, our group found unsatisfying the lack of certainty about the events created by both this slippage and the fast pace
which made us feel that we were reading too quickly and missing things. I don't think it was clear to any of us what actually happened
at the farm in the end - who was who, who was tricking who - but several of us said that in the end we didn't care, not because it
didn't matter, but because we had basically lost any emotional investment in the narrator's plight. Clare said she thought that part of
the problem was that the prose takes us so deeply inside the unthinking narrator's head: there's no sense of an author distanced from the
narrator's psyche and judging it or setting it in context. We had to acknowledge however that immediately after its publication in
Brazil the novel sold over 130,000 copies, and that our reaction was probably a Western cultural thing: we like the rational and the
certain and a more logical sense of consequence. And, as Ann said, we want redemption, which the ending of this novel, terrible
and madly random, certainly doesn't provide.
Even Trevor, who had suggested this book with great enthusiasm, had found it less than satisfying; nevertheless, he said he would
now try other books by Buarque, although I'm afraid that everyone else said they wouldn't.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Marque
If the last few meetings are anything to go by, our group seems to be developing a consensus about books - a bit of a change
from some of the heated arguments we've had in the past.
All present admired and were greatly moved by this famous German novel suggested by Clare. Written in the aftermath of the
First World War, and based on Remarque's own experience at the Western front, it is the searing first-person account of a young
regular soldier's experience of the conflict. All of us said that although there is so much material about the First World War,
so that one feels one knows all about it, reading this book was an eye-opening experience. Unlike most accounts (such
as those of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy of novels and of the British War Poets) it presents the vivid perspective not of an officer,
but of a regular soldier. Pushed by their teacher with his ideology of national glory, the narrator and his classmates enlist as regulars
at the age of eighteen, but, thoughtful and intelligent, the narrator is very soon aware of the ironies of army life and reflects on its
de-civilising and dehumanising nature:
'At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognised that what matters is not the mind but the boot brush,
not intelligence but the system, not freedom but the drill... After three weeks it was no longer incomprehensible to us that a braided
policeman should have more authority over us than had formerly our parents, our teachers and the whole gamut of culture from Plato
Not only does the book present in acute detail the physical experience for the ordinary soldier, it is intently concerned with the
psychological effects of war. Once his unit is moved into active service on the front, and as his experiences become searing, the narrator
comments on the disassociation required to perform a soldier's tasks and manoeuvres, the suppression of thought and feeling -
the need to be all animal instinct - simply to be able to stay safe. He comes to understand the devastating consequences for his
generation. Home on leave, where the war is still viewed in terms of glory, and thus unable to communicate his experience, he sees
that his particular generation of young men - signing up before they had had the chance to develop lives back home to return to -
will be forever destroyed, alienated from society even if they survive the war, their promise shattered. I said that at the point where
the narrator voices this notion, I was in floods of tears, and everyone agreed that it was devastatingly moving.
Needless to say, in the run-up to the Second World War the book was banned in Germany as unpatriotic. People in our group
however expressed an appreciation of the fact that for us British readers the German point of view dispensed with all issues of patriotism
and underlined the devastating effects of war per se for all. We were all immensely moved by the incident, recalling Wilfred Owen's
'Strange Meeting', in which the narrator instinctively kills a Frenchman who jumps into a crater in which he is sheltering, only to then
see his humanity and mourn him.
'I see how peoples are set one against another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.
I see that the keenest brains in the world invent weapons and words to make it more refined and enduring.'
Clare said that she wasn't sure the book was the greatest literature, but it was certainly worth reading for its message. I said, though,
I found that the style in which it is written - a particular plain realist style that was fashionable in Germany between the two wars -
served admirably its stark subject matter and message, and was in any case enlivened throughout by moments of incisive irony:
'little Albert Kropp, the clearest thinker among us and therefore only a lance-corporal'. (There is a wonderfully droll
irony in a discussion amongst the soldiers, prompted by a visit from the Kaiser, about why wars occur.) Like Clare, the rest of us said
we were really glad to have read the book, and grateful to her for having suggested it.