John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
A “sick old turtle” named Michel Houellebecq appears in Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, The Map and the Territory. Drawing by Bill Morris
Few living writers have generated as much snark as Michel Houellebecq. Of all the rivers of bile that this dyspeptic bad boy of French letters has inspired, here is my absolute favorite sentence: “Like Haruki Murakami – in some ways his gentler (and far more gifted) Japanese counterpart – Houellebecq writes about the sulky crises of middle-aged male protagonists confronting existential superfluity while dealing with the destabilizing presence of alternately willing and withholding nubiles.”
Anyone who can keep a straight face while writing such a sentence – especially the bit about the destabilizing influence of alternately willing and withholding nubiles – is a writer you simply cannot ignore. So meet Rob Horning, who wrote the above for the on-line magazine The New Inquiry, in his review of a new book called Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism by Ben Jeffery. Horning gives a full inventory of what he finds offensive about Houellebecq’s fiction: its self-loathing, misanthropy, pessimism, cynicism, and hopelessness in the face of a life that is pointless and only made moreso by the hollow seductions of sex and consumer capitalism. “Houellebecq’s indiscriminate cynicism is not especially hard to get a handle on,” Horning writes. “He seems to operate on the assumption that the more mercilessly pessimistic or debasing an observation, the more titillatingly truthful readers will take it to be. He yearns to sound transgressive but more often than not comes across as petty and self-parodic.”
Horning bases this verdict largely on three of Houellebecq’s fictional gloomfests, The Elementary Particles (1998), Platform (2002), and The Possibility of an Island (2006). That’s a shame, because since then Houellebecq has published two books – a collection of correspondence with Bernard-Henri Levy called Public Enemies, and a new novel called The Map and the Territory – that reveal something Horning would likely find impossible to believe.
Namely: Michel Houellebecq may be a petty misanthrope and an average prose stylist, but he can also be drop-dead funny.
Here he is writing to his pen pal BHL in Public Enemies: “We are both rather contemptible individuals…basically I’m just a redneck, an unremarkable author with no style…a nihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist.” After pleading guilty as charged, Houellebecq points out that nihilists have feelings too: “The fact remains that I am uncomfortable and helpless in the face of outright hostility. Every time I did one of those famous Google searches, I had the same feeling as, when suffering from a particularly painful bout of eczema, I end up scratching myself until I bleed… In the end I stopped counting my enemies although, in spite of my doctor’s repeated advice, I still haven’t given up scratching.”
Granted, this isn’t exactly thigh-slapping material, but the Gallic wit is undeniable, as is the refreshingly gentle air of self-deprecation. These virtues are the centerpiece of The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq’s least violent and most tender novel, winner of France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
The book opens with a contemporary French artist named Jed Martin struggling to finish a painting he calls Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. Here’s Houellebecq’s take on the art world’s two reigning superstars: Koons had the slippery appearance of “a Chevrolet convertible salesman,” while “Hirst was basically easy to capture: you could make him brutal, cynical in an ‘I shit on you from the top of my pile of cash’ kind of way; you could also make him a rebel artist (but rich all the same) pursuing an anguished work on death…” This deft lampoon of the art world is marred by those random italics, a pointless stylistic tic that will recur, maddeningly, on every page.
The novel’s brashest and best gag is the introduction of a character named Michel Houellebecq, the famous French writer, who Jed enlists to write the catalog copy for his break-out exhibition, a series of altered photographs of Michelin road maps that give the novel its title. The author describes this Houellebecq character as “a sick old turtle,” a “tortured wreck,” and “a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies: it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog.”
The novel is most alive when we’re in the presence of Houellebecq, who loathes his native France so much that he has moved into a “banal” bungalow on the west coast of Ireland, where he putters around amid unpacked boxes, fretting, not getting much writing done. When Jed visits him there, a spark ignites between the two and the story begins to sing. Jed confesses that he expected the novelist to drink more than he does, and Houllebecq pounces on this opportunity to unload on some of his eczema-inducing enemies: “You know, it’s the journalists who’ve given me the reputation for being a drunk; what’s curious is that none of them ever realized that if I was drinking a lot in their presence, it was simply in order to put up with them. How could you bear to have a conversation with a twat like Jean-Paul Marsouin without being almost shit-faced? How could you meet someone who works for Marianne or Le Parisien libere without wanting to throw up on the spot?”
This has the ring of dark truth and it’s fun to read and I don’t doubt that it was fun to write. Unfortunately, there’s entirely too little of it, and the fun comes to an abrupt end when Houellebecq returns to France, buys the rural house he grew up in, and gets brutally murdered there.
There are only two nubiles in the book, both of the willing persuasion and both doomed to disappear without a trace, a fate common to many of Houellebecq’s characters. Much more interesting is the presence of a middle-aged woman named Helene, who is attractive, sexy, and happily married to Jasselin, the lead police investigator in the Houellebecq murder case. But this is an author who can’t stand prosperity. Soon after shocking us with a grisly murder and introducing us to this intriguing married couple, Houellebecq wanders off on a wheezing disquisition on the history, temperament, and health complications of their bichon dog (“the introduction of the Bolognese bichon to the court of Francois I came as a present from the duke of Ferrara…”). Such disregard for the reader goes beyond cynical; it’s vicious. And it has all the poetry of a Wikipedia entry. In fact, after weathering charges that he’d copied entire passages of the novel from the online encyclopedia, Houellebecq has added an acknowledgement in the American edition, thanking Wikipedia for being a “source of inspiration.”
Houellebecq has been compared, not unfairly, to everyone from Camus to Celine, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Manson. If I read him correctly, his lack of artistry is a conscious indictment of artistry, of prettiness, of writers bowing to readers who yearn for such cheap niceties as fluent prose, shapely narratives, and three-dimensional characters. Such things are both beneath Houellebecq’s contempt and beyond his powers, which is lucky for him. His stance means he’s free to demean something he’s incapable of producing. Nifty.
Which is not to say this is a wholly bad book. It’s full of clunky writing, but it has a few interesting ideas and engaging moments, some actual suspense, and a delightfully twisted sense of humor. That’s not nothing. And any writer who can call himself a “sick old turtle” and serve us his own severed head – well, that’s a writer you simply cannot ignore.
1. Wisdom in the Wit
If you share my fascination with the mysterious ways writers get made, you’ll be thrilled by a new book called Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. Edited by a long-time Portis devotee, the Arkansas-based writer Jay Jennings, this collection is a virtual connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in the newsrooms of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Herald Tribune, the papers where Portis worked as a reporter and columnist from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. After a year as the Herald Tribune’s London correspondent, Portis left newspapering in 1964 and went back home to Arkansas to set up shop as a novelist. Over the next quarter-century, he produced five novels that are universally regarded, by those who bothered to read them, as classics.
The move — up? — from journalism to fiction puts Portis in good company. The list of American novelists and short story writers whose careers were hatched in the clattering typhoon of a newspaper city room is both long and lustrous. It includes, to name a few, Twain, Hemingway, Dreiser, Steinbeck, Ring Lardner, Margaret Mitchell, Tom Wolfe (a colleague of Portis’s at the Herald Tribune), and the criminally under-appreciated Ward Just. Now, thanks to dogged Jay Jennings, we can add Charles Portis to the list.
Here’s how Wolfe described his former colleague’s transition from journalist to novelist: “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific…. A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”
Wolfe’s trademark hyperventilation is meant to imply that it’s unthinkable that anyone could write successful novels in a backwater like Arkansas. The truth is that novelists can work absolutely anywhere, and more than a few people think they’re better off far away from the media hum, high cost of living, and obsessive mirror gazing that go on in places like Wolfe’s adopted hometown of New York City. Besides, Portis didn’t write fiction about Arkansas; he wrote fiction out of Arkansas.
In his introduction to Escape Velocity, Jennings cites, chapter and verse, the many instances when Portis’s funny, sharply observed — and occasionally heroic — newspaper reporting presaged his fiction. Jennings rightly notes that Portis was blessed with two tools vital to every successful reporter and novelist: an ear for the music of spoken language, and an eye for illuminating physical details. So in an article about a PR stunt by a gaggle of Memphis Jaycees dressed up in Confederate uniforms, Portis reports that one of them was “wearing a Harry Truman shirt and Japanese sandals.” It is precisely the sort of detail Portis would make up, by the long ton, in his fiction.
At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Alabama, Portis watched the flames from two enormous crosses lick the night sky. “There were a lot of bugs in the air, too,” he wrote, “knocking against the crosses and falling into open collars.” Surely Portis was remembering that scene when he wrote these lines about Norwood Pratt’s family in his first novel:
They later moved to a tin-roof house that was situated in a gas field under a spectacular flare that burned all the time. Big copper-green beetles the size of mice came from all over the Southland to see it and die in it. At night their little toasted corpses pankled down on the tin roof.
Though it’s not mentioned in Escape Velocity, I feel sure Portis was forced to sit through some hellish gatherings of Southern bluebloods during his stint as a reporter in Little Rock. This description of an elderly lady in Norwood, with its mention of an obscure fallen hero of the Confederacy, has the ring of lived experience:
She claimed descent from the usurper Cromwell and she read a long paper once on her connections at a gathering of Confederate Daughters, all but emptying the ballroom of the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock. This was no small feat considering the tolerance level of a group who had sat unprotesting through two days of odes and diaries and recipes for the favorite dishes of General Pat Cleburne.
The following description of the media mob that descended on Little Rock in 1959, for the reopening of the public schools two years after they’d been shut by tensions over integration, captures Portis’s scorn for his fellow journalists: “They came early to Hall High School, about 100 of them, and stood around in little groups of wilted Dacron and damp mustaches, chattering and picking each others’ brains. The photographers diddled with their cameras and shot everything in sight. The reporters engaged in small talk, shop talk and speculation, occasionally taking notes on nothing.”
Anyone who has worked as a newspaper reporter covering a non-news event, as I have, will tell you that there’s wisdom embedded in this wit. But there was nothing funny about the way Portis ended his account of a 1962 boiler explosion that killed 21 workers, mostly young women, in a New York Telephone Company building: “A pair of high-heeled shoes stood upright in a bare spot where there must have been a desk. A disembodied phone was on the floor ringing, its little red extension light winking. I wondered who was calling but I did not answer it.”
Portis’s most impressive, even astounding, journalism was his coverage of civil rights unrest in the South for the Herald Tribune. One Saturday night in May of 1963 he was in Bessemer, Ala., covering the aforementioned Ku Klux Klan rally — a dangerous assignment given the Klan’s hatred for the news media, especially a reporter from the Yankee snake pit of New York City. After returning to his hotel in Birmingham, Portis and other reporters were jolted by the “dull whoomp” of an explosion. They rushed four blocks to the damaged Gaston Motel in time to see the birth of a long night of rioting. Portis dodged thrown bottles and bricks, even the police department’s armored vehicle, while gathering material. The next day, working under brutal deadline pressure, he filed a lyrical, vivid story of nearly 2,000 words, along with a sidebar about the Klan rally that included this wry passage:
One of the favorite speakers was a man in red who warned of sickle-cell anemia, “a deadly organism lurking in all nigger blood.”
“If so much as one drop of nigger blood gets in your baby’s cereal,” he said, “the baby will surely die in one year.” He did not explain how he thought a negro would come to bleed in anyone’s cereal.
But Portis reserved his most withering scorn for the sidebar’s closing lines: “By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”
It is a masterpiece of deadline reporting — of newspaper writing — of writing — that has rarely been equaled in American journalism.
2. Teardrops, Adultery, Diesel Trucks
In addition to these revelatory newspaper articles, Escape Velocity contains travel writing, four short stories, a “one-off” memoir, a play, a rare interview, and tributes from Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, Ron Rosenbaum, Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower.
The interview, a long conversation between Portis and fellow Gazette alumnus Roy Reed, will delight fans who have become accustomed to Portis’s maddening reticence. Here, for once, he opens up, talking about some of the prosaic stories he covered in addition to the school integration wars — “State Fair stories, murders, ice storms…a big cock-fighting meet in Garland County.” When Reed asks what got Portis interested in studying journalism in the first place, he replies, “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.”
While that interview and the newspaper writing are, for me, the meat of the book, there are tasty bits throughout, including a travel piece called “The New Sound from Nashville,” which was the cover story of the Saturday Evening Post on Feb. 12, 1966, a few months before Portis’s first novel came out. I approached this article more as a fact checker than as a casual reader, for I had worked as a morning-drive disc jockey in Nashville in the 1980s, and I like to think I know a few things about the place. I was eager to see if Portis’s reporting rang true. He won me over with his opening:
Nashville, the Athens of the South, is home to Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and at least half a dozen other colleges, as well as a symphony orchestra, a concrete replica of the Parthenon and a downtown beer joint called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Tootsie’s is where the country music people hang out — those who don’t object to beer joints…. On Saturday nights, performers on the Grand Ole Opry step out the stage door and cross an alley and go in the back door of Tootsie’s to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds.
Tootsie’s was still in business when I lived in Nashville, though the Opry had decamped from nearby Ryman Auditorium to a glittering new palace way out on Briley Parkway. Portis’s sketch of Tootsie’s was still valid nearly two decades after he wrote it: “Tootsie’s is like a thousand other beer joints in the South with such names as Junior’s Dew Drop Inn and Pearl’s Howdy Club, and a certain type of country boy feels right at home there, whether he has $250,000 in his pocket or just came in on the bus from Plain Dealing, La., with a guitar across his back and white cotton socks rolled down in little cylinders atop his grease-resistant work shoes. And a song in his heart about teardrops, adultery, diesel trucks.”
This bus rider from Louisiana hints at Portis’s understanding of the central fact of Nashville: by 1966 the city was already on its way to becoming what it is today, a songwriter’s town. I knew dozens of songwriters just like that guy from Plain Dealing, La., with his white cotton socks and his grease-resistant work shoes. One of them lived downstairs from me — a lot of late-night beer drinking and guitar thwanking and unpromising singing. “At one time, in true folk tradition,” Portis writes, “just about every country singer wrote his own songs…. The singer-songwriter is still very much around — Roger Miller sings his own material — but in recent years there has been a proliferation of nonperforming writers. It is a precarious trade.”
While I was living on 17th Avenue in Nashville, the singer Lacy J. Dalton had a hit song about the dreamers of this precarious dream then flocking to nearby 16th Avenue, otherwise known as Music Row. Went like this:
From the corners of the country,
From the cities and the farms,
With years and years of livin’
Tucked up underneath their arms,
They walked away from everything
Just to see a dream come true.
So God bless the boys
Who make the noise
On 16th Avenue.
Another thing Portis got exactly right is the deep gully that separates the citizens of Nashville from the country music crowd. “The Athenians of the South go one way, and the country music people another,” he writes. “Less than 10 percent of the Opry audiences come from the Nashville area. Middle-class Nashvillians, anxious lest they be mistaken for rubes, are quick to inform the visitor that they have never attended the show. It is not for them, this hoedown.”
I attended the Opry just once — with a backstage pass from a keyboard player I knew. I did not encounter Loretta Lynn, as Portis did. She told him all about her recent trip to Europe, then pleaded, “Put in your article about how bad the toilet paper is over there. I wish you could see it, hun, you wouldn’t believe it.”
On the night I attended the Opry, I got invited onto Mel Tillis’s idling tour bus between sets. Mel was drinking a can of Stroh’s beer and playing poker with some of the boys from his backup band, The Statesiders. Mel and I were introduced, and we chatted for a while about the screenplays we were writing. He was collaborating with Roy Clark; I was going solo. The ice broken, I ventured the opinion that Porter Wagoner, another performer that night, sounded like a drowning duck.
“S-s-s-say what you w-w-w-w-w-wanna say about Porter’s s-s-singin,” Mel replied in his famous stammer, “but he’s g-got the b-b-b-b-biggest d-dick in country music.”
The drummer flung his cards in the air and fell to the floor of the bus, cackling till he had a coughing fit. I didn’t have the wits to ask Mel how he knew about the size of Porter Wagoner’s penis. This is a true story. I feel sure Charles Portis, who has been backstage at the Opry, would believe it in a New York minute.
3. I Can’t Breathe!
In his introduction, Jennings remarks that another of Escape Velocity’s travel pieces, “An Auto Odyssey Through Darkest Baja,” showcases all the elements that make Portis’s writing so unique and timeless: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines, and more pure reading pleasure than I’d enjoyed in a long time.” I would argue that deep knowledge worn lightly is the rarest and most valuable of these virtues. Skill with internal combustion engines should not be underestimated, as in this piece of high praise for a smooth-running Buick Invicta: “The engine was idling but making no more noise than a rat peeing on a sack of cotton.”
The “Auto Odyssey” article was the result of a 1966 roadtrip Portis and a buddy took from Los Angeles to La Paz, located near the tail end of “that empty brown peninsula” known as Baja California. They rode in a “rat-colored 1952 Studebaker half-ton pickup.” Again, this crazy mission roused the fact checker in me, for I have also driven the grueling length of the Baja peninsula — as the wheelman on a used-up Isuzu Trooper, carrying a German film crew from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas as they shot a travel documentary.
I can report that Portis nails the surreal experience — the heat, the dust, the tendency for tires to blow out on the washboard side roads (the main road was paved all the way when I made the trip, a major improvement over the conditions Portis encountered in the 1960s); the tendency for motor vehicles to throw up their hands and quit under such trying conditions; the fact that the empty brown peninsula is full of colorful characters (including one we found living alone in a teepee in a canyon next to a gigantic ceramic iguana); the fact that everyone you meet is a mechanic who is happy to work on your rig but never quite seems to fix it. (Travel advisory: the citizens of Cuba are much better shade-tree mechanics.)
Now that Jennings has gathered together this magnificent miscellany, I say it’s time for him to follow it up with a chrestomathy of Portis-isms. It would be easy to fill a volume with the names of the characters, places, business establishments, clothing items, food, shopping lists, motor vehicles, aircraft, firearms, and tourist attractions sprinkled like hot ingots throughout Portis’s fiction and non-fiction.
Here are the names of just a few of his characters: Ray Midge, Sherman Lee Purifoy, Norwood Pratt, Lamar Jimmerson, Dub Polton, Professor Cezar Golescu, President Eutropio Melanoma, Rooster Cogburn, Dr. Reo Symes, Whit and Adele Gluters, Grady Fring the Kredit King, and the midget Edmund B. Ratner, the world’s smallest perfect man. The heroic members of Fox Company in the Korean War short story, “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” are named Sgt. Zim, Neap, Dill, Vick, Bogue, Ball, and Sipe. Sounds like a law firm staffed by lunatics. Yet here lies the key to Portis’s success as a novelist: he feels tremendous tenderness for every one of his characters, like the forbearing father of some unruly but loveable brood.
Here’s a pair of signs that Portis says should have been alternately flashing outside a motel called the Ominato Inn where he once stayed:
NOT QUITE A DUMP
AT DUMP PRICES
And, finally, here’s a smorgasbord from a 1992 short story called “Nights Can Turn Cool in Viborra.” It’s the story of Chick Jardine, “winner of five gold Doobie Awards for travel writing!”, and how he hooks up with Jason and Mopsy Crimm on the Tessair Fokker flight into that paradise known as Viborra, where they stay at the deluxe Pan-Lupus Hotel. The travel writer and the tourists hunt for bargains on “belts, yo-yos, fishnet tank tops, heavy woolen shower curtains, and tortoise-shell flashlights.” They admire “the slavering ferocity of the women gnawing on leather (to soften it) at the Arses Lupus Belt and Purse Co-op.” They enjoy a leisurely stroll along the bay front promenade, where, Chick reports, “We ate flavored ices and watched the children clubbing rat fish in the shallows.”
Chick offers the Crimms some savvy tips for enjoying Carnival in Viborra: “Wear casual clothes…beware the melon ambush…keep a sharp lookout for boulders and burning tires rolling down the hillside streets.” Like Portis, Chick holds his fellow members of the fourth estate in less than the highest regard: “We went to the bar to kill some time and found it filled with English travel writers in suede shoes and speckled green suits. What a scene! They were laughing and scribbling and asking how to spell ‘ogive’ and brazenly cribbing long passages of architectural arcana from their John Ruskin handbooks, which are issued with their union cards.”
All this from one little bitty nine-page short story. Imagine what Jay Jennings could do if he mined the entire Portis oeuvre! What a scene! What a book! Or, to quote Ring Lardner, another journalist who tried his hand at fiction: I can’t breathe!
I came to read this book because last summer I was given, unexpectedly, a review copy of Dexter’s latest book, Train; (my review). I had never heard of Dexter at the time, but I loved the book, and when Dexter came to the book store to do a reading, I made sure I was in attendance (he turned out to be a very engaging guy) and had him sign a copy of Paris Trout for me. And now I’ve gotten around to reading that very same book. Paris Trout centers around a character of the same name. Though he is clearly a psychopath, he has money and is a business man, so his violent nature is ignored by the citizens of his small town, Cotton Point, Georgia. The book opens with an attack by Trout on a local black family. The town’s white population does not want to be seen siding with a black family against a white man, so, from then on they turn a blind eye towards Trout and allow him to bully the legal system. Also involved in this hard boiled drama are Trout’s wife Hanna and Harry Seagraves, Trout’s good-guy lawyer. The book is framed as the story of a very bad man terrorizing a sleepy town, but the amazing thing about it is the way Dexter slowly turns the tables until it becomes clear that the complacency of the townspeople is a far greater sin than the murderousness of someone who lives among them. Though it reads like genre fiction with gripping suspense and at times remarkable violence, the subtle play on the psychology of a small town elevates the book to a remarkable literary novel. Although, I should say, if this book were not as deep and were merely a legal thriller, I would still have found it to be fantastic based on the strength of Dexter’s writing. A great book. (Another Dexter post).Next UpI am now embarking upon Edith Grossman’s translation of Miguel De Cervantes’ classic, Don Quixote. After that I’ll be reading Walker Percy’s underappreciated classic The Moviegoer
On September 5, 1607, the British trade ship Dragon found itself off the coast of Sierra Leone, and Capt. William Keeling and his Portuguese interpreter were entertained by the sailors staging what is supposedly the earliest recorded production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We are informed that the play was presented to keep the crew from “idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.” While the existence of the so-called “bad quartos” assures us that Hamlet’s premiere was on the stage of the Globe in Southwark, England, the earliest specific dated mention of the play being staged was aboard the warped wooden planks of this worn vessel (though some have convincingly doubted the veracity of Keeling’s diary). If the accounts are to be believed, at the outset of what would be a three-year voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope in search of Indonesian spices, the seamen working on behalf of the East India Company performed the play “and in the afternoone… went altogether ashore, to see if… [they] could shoot an elephant.” Shakespeare was still alive when this production of the Danish play first premiered, his celebrated sonnets to be printed two years after that evening aboard the Dragon and a year before the ship would once again find itself in the port of London. Fully eight more plays were to be written by the Bard after this extemporaneous staging of his most famous play in view of those white-sand beaches of the gold and ivory coasts—and in view of the slaving castles, which the English had operated for a generation already.
Tellingly, one of those eight plays yet to be written was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s prescient allegory of colonialism, a tale of “A brave vessel, /Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her;” if the records are to be believed, the noble creature in the Dragon was Shakespeare’s words. Prospero is an appropriate corollary to the crew, being as they were only the first in a long line of travelers who brought Shakespeare along on their trips to Africa, both in pamphlet and pig-skin bound volume, including characters as varied as the Victorian adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra Richard Burton, the infamous self-promoter Henry Morton Stanley in search of Dr. Livingstone, Teddy Roosevelt on a post-presidential safari, the Danish coffee magnate and writer Karen Blixen, and the communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara holed up in the Cuban embassy at Dar es Salaam reading from the folio.
Yet it is the Dragon as origin myth that provides the most arresting image. Hamlet, as it were, has many African origins; if the Dragon’s seafaring production was the first we have official record of, than the first “talkie” film version of Shakespeare found its genesis in 1935 Mombasa, where Indians brought by the British to build eastern Africa’s network of rails had their Urdu production Khoon ka Khoon pressed to celluloid.
Both anecdotes are recounted in Cambridge professor and Shakespeare scholar Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet. Reflecting on how “the earliest recorded production of Hamlet was a command performance for a Portuguese-speaking native of the West African coast” is part of his project to move a bit closer to that “Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal” while remaining painfully aware of the fact that “that very universalism [has been]…used as a tool to exclude [some] from the bounds of the human.” Raised in Nairobi by American conservationists, Wilson-Lee is aware of the ways in which Shakespeare was often handmaid to the subjugation of people by English colonialists, who used the playwright as evidence of British superiority, while at the same time acknowledging the complicated ways Shakespeare was used by people across Africa in their own striving for national self-determination.
There are, of course, unmistakable political implications for a white Oxbridge African such as Wilson-Lee writing about Shakespeare’s reception across Africa. Readers may be uncomfortable at Wilson-Lee’s recounting of a colonial childhood of wild monkeys in the yard and mango for breakfast, but the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his privilege, freely admitting to luxuries such as travelling throughout East Africa by rail, where “white-gloved stewards turned down starched sheets,” visits to Kenya’s air-conditioned shopping malls constructed in imitation of American suburban convenience, and G&T’s at the Aero Club of East Africa. This privilege is most damningly on display in his reflections on the nature of white guilt at his family’s employment of black domestic laborers, a theme he sees in Shakespeare’s “obsession with master-servant relations.”
Wilson-Lee’s is an odd hodgepodge of a book—part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, part literary criticism. And yet despite its chimerical nature, it is an effective book, combining as it does an adept theoretical orientation, an admirable facility with the Explication de texte of Shakespeare’s language, and a humanism that is sometimes lacking in the most arid of literary theory. Too often, conservative “defenders” of Shakespeare against some imagined threat to the canon obscure the very real ways in which both Shakespeare in particular and English literature in general were used to erase the lives and culture of people in colonized lands, as a type of soft artillery. But Wilson-Lee isn’t wrong when he says that it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare “almost alone among writers, defies such cynicism.” He conjectures that though Shakespeare’s genius may simply be “some grand collective delusion, a truism rather than a truth,” he can’t help but find that “every time, the dawning freshness of a turn of phrase, a short exchange or an orchestrated speech makes dull the cleverness which wrote these impressions off as nostalgic.” In what is one of the book’s most poignantly beautiful scenes, Wilson-Lee describes listening to two surviving records of that Urdu production of Hamlet preserved at the British Library (the film itself being lost to posterity), explaining that the music of that production was pressed neither on vinyl nor wax cylinder, but rather “on discs made from shellac, crushed beetle-shell.” And so he could hear “the same sounds that would have rung out of the ramshackle theatres onto the Mombasa streets, the love songs of Hindustani Shakespeare, preserved in the carcasses of beetles which had once footled around the forests of Bengal.”
Shakespeare in Swahililand functions both as a historical account of the role that the Bard has played in east Africa, as well as the author’s own travelogue through the historically Swahili-speaking parts of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with stops outside of Swahililand in Ethiopia and South Sudan, noting that “one of the first books printed in Swahili was a Shakespearean one” in the form of a translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s sanitized Victorian bestseller Tales from Shakespeare. His historical account moves from Shakespeare’s own day through 2012 when the South Sudanese delegation to the Cultural Olympiad staged a Juba Arabic performance of Cymbeline for London’s Globe Theater. Shakespeare in Swahililand is replete with fascinating anecdotes about the poet’s reception, while never losing sight of the complexities of that reception. These include descriptions of Roosevelt in the bush reading the Collected Works by gas lamp; Blixen arguing with her servant Farah about The Merchant of Venice, the latter interpreting Shylock as the unequivocal hero of the play; Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s scholarly Swahili translation of Julius Caesar, a performance of that same play with the title role being filled by Uganda’s future president Apollo Milton Obote in a 1948 version staged at Makerere University; and the brilliant performance of one of that university’s first Muslim female students, Assiah Jabir, in the role of Volumna in Coriolanus. There are even shades of our current controversy over the Central Park Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, as a similar imbroglio occurred in Ethiopia in 1952 when the Roman tyrant reminded audiences of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Wilson-Lee’s story isn’t an uncomplicated one of people across Africa simply taking to the essential core of the Bard; the playwright was enlisted as a subject for Indians to “pass exams for the Colonial Service,” and after Britain’s empire collapsed, theaters were funded by the CIA front the Congress for Cultural Freedom to further American corporate interest, ensuring “the continuation of capitalism,” with unprofitable east African theaters “regularly subsidized by the American oil company Caltex.” And yet for all of the imperial usages of Shakespeare, a subversive core endures, as he becomes something that can be made distinctly and confidently “African.”
It’s a conclusion which neither reduces Shakespeare to Immutable Platonic Genius, nor to to colonial handmaiden viewed as great only because a bunch of genocidal Englishmen forced people to say so at the point of a bayonet. Rather, Shakespeare becomes a multivocal, contradictory, expansive author, one for whom the inconsistencies become precisely the point. This is a “universalism born not of a shared and distinct experience but of mutual contemplation of something so vast and varied as to accommodate every point of view.” And so we have an Indian version of Twelfth Night titled Bhul Bhuliyan, which recasts the opening Illyrian shipwreck as a tragic railroad bridge collapse, with Wilson-Lee reminding us that few “members of the Mombasa audience would not have known or been related to at least one of the 2,498 men who died during the construction of the line which ran from the coast to Lake Victoria.” Or we have Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island reading and rereading the plays to keep his sanity and his spirit intact. Or the linguist Alice Werner who in 1913, while studying Bantu, had The Story of the Flesh and the Thigh told to her as an indigenous tale, realizing later that it drew its narrative from Edward Steere’s Swahili version of The Merchant of Venice.
The most famous challenge to the supposed universalism of Shakespeare is in anthropologist Laura Bohannan’s 1966 classic Natural History article “Shakespeare in the Bush.” She recounts how she is asked to tell a story by a gathering of Tiv tribal elders in the highlands of Nigeria, and so she ultimately chooses Hamlet. The elders supposedly reacted with incomprehension at the strange tale: all Tiv know that ghosts are not real, no Tiv would ever scold his mother as Hamlet does, and Ophelia could not have drowned herself because only a witch can do that. As Bohannan records, the elders said “We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work”—a telling if ironic inversion of the normalcies of western triumphalist universalism.
And yet, while Bohannan’s anecdote was meant to demonstrate the fallacy of literary universalism, Wilson-Lee would argue that it only proves that universalism is innately complicated. Witness Hamlet looking for his father’s ghost on Mughal battlefields, or the Marathi translation of Romeo and Juliet inventing an entire backstory for Romeo’s first lover Rosalind (she marries Tybalt and is responsible for losing Friar Lawrence’s message about Juliet’s sleeping potion). Such revisions are as if “watching someone you love in costume, newly beautiful but still the same.” As Wilson-Lee takes pains to explain, despite Shakespeare’s original role in colonialism, African liberation proponents “and other political agitators became adepts at using the colonials’ cultural totems against them,” just like “Caliban cursing Prospero in his own language.” Yet Caliban need not only curse, for the subaltern may speak, and sing too. As a result, across Shakespeare in Swahililand we discover that Wilson-Lee’s African Shakespeare is both colonizer and colonized, Prospero and Caliban, invading Roman of Cymbeline and resisting Celt of that same play, for “everyone can, to an extent, find their own Shakespeare.” This then, is the other side of appropriation, the sublime poetry of subversion.