Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
A 2002 essay by the academic Andreas Huyssen outlines the critical problem that some people “still want to force us to choose between high and low, or as Susan Sontag put it in the 1960s, between Dostoyevsky and The Doors”. Postmodernism, he argues, has lost its critical edge, hybridization — between lofty and populist, bridging nations’ cultures — has become the norm.
Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt has loaded up his car and is headed to the heart of this storm. His first book, Ablutions, brought the folk mythic of Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson to the delusions of a degenerating alcoholic working in a bar. His follow up Western, The Sisters Brothers, blended the Coen brothers with Frank Miller. His latest, Undermajordomo Minor, is billed as a fairy tale but has cited influences as diverse as Robert Coover, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and C.F., a musician-cum-zine author published by late Brooklyn publisher PictureBox Inc. So is it fair to consider him in terms of a binary between high and low? Is his work entertainment, something to get us off? Or is it original, beautiful, communicating deep ideas? Do we need to pick?
Undermajordomo Minor, on the face of it, is straightforward enough, a plot plucking memories from our childhood reading: Lucien Minor, a 17-year-old miserabilist, can’t quite connect with the world. He leaves home to escape boredom by working at a distant castle for a mysterious Baron, meets various colorful characters, falls in love, has some rivalry for his paramour, and seeks closure.
All this is as seen through deWitt’s distinctive lens, and from the opening pages Minor is “mourning the fact that there was nothing much to mourn at all,” because he’d never had a close relationship to his parents. He is detached, arguably depressed — what might kindly be described as “melancholic,” if one is to romanticize low mood — and can’t seem to feel at home anywhere.
In describing this, deWitt deploys a similar narrative structure to that of “intermissions” in The Sisters Brothers — set piece subplots, teed up with filmic titles. There’s a scene where Minor encounters two thieves, Memel and Mewe, on his train out of town; the arrival of an elusive Baroness, with whom his feral boss is having a volatile relationship; his own travails with a love interest and her alpha-male soldiering spouse; a failed murder attempt by Minor ending with a digression that sees him fall into an abstract Very Large Hole in the ground.
The prose is at points sparse — declarative and distant — like a bedtime story, at others full of naïve grandiloquence. Upon meeting a group of soldiers: “Lucy was afraid of these men, naturally, for they carried themselves so grimly, and it seemed they intended to set upon him and for all he knew bring him to harm.”
A plus for pace, but locations — Minor’s hometown Bury, the castle where he works, the village it overlooks – are not photorealistic, delicately picked out still-life, but more like watercolor. A settlement is “collected, like leavings, debris;” the Castle Von Aux comprises “a broad, crenellated outer curtain wall and two conical towers…built at the sloping base of a mountain range, standing grey-black against the snow.”
In opposition to that, characters are larger than life, almost Disneyish. Majordomo Mr. Olderglough, to whom Minor reports, is “an elegantly skeletal man of sixty…his right arm hung in a sling, his fingers folded talon-like, nails blackened, knuckles blemished with scabs and blue-yellow bruising.” An obnoxious pair of visiting aristocrats are variously “slick, blubbery” and “crimson, panting” — images straight out of Roald Dahl.
The result lends portent, aids exaggeration and farce. Textually, the obvious comparisons are from European fiction skirting the boundary between realism and fabulism — The Brothers Grimm, Stefan Zweig, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Color is symbolically used to denote sadness, particularly blue: the smoke around a train, Minor as “The Blue Boy.” The allusions here are mythic — Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Gothic literature. And there is still the odd, comedic, deWitt flourish: the straight-faced incongruity of Lucy endeavoring to smoke a pipe is set-up, and put away, clinically. “Feinting, he removed his pipe and pointed its stem at the storm clouds, now tabled across the valley,” beggars incredulity, and laughter.
On a larger scale, because of the abstracted reality, we can choose to read the narrative as entertainment, or as allegory. When Minor falls into the Very Large Hole it might be a chance for him to meet two men who’ve also paddled into tough romantic straits, have failed to escape, and lack the chutzpah of a younger man. It’s also no great shakes to see the hole in terms of mood — an obvious link would be to Shane Jones’s 2010 book Light Boxes, which drew criticism for its alleged solipsism and for being too twee, despite being an innovative exploration of seasonal depression.
Unlike that book, deWitt doesn’t fall into any metafictional trap–– though the Baroness does at one point slam a book shut, “resentful at the promise of an entertainment unfulfilled” — but he does put clear water between himself and his previous novels.
It’s easy to parse his gradual movement from a linear narrative to something marginally more picaresque, retaining the sharp, script-like precision of The Sisters Brothers. Along with shortening sentences, his prose is gradually becoming more straightforward, and less gnomic — veering from the jabbing finger of second person, to the personalized first, to more conventional third.
Any arbitrarily conceived progression aside, there are various familiarities. Plot points of dissatisfaction and emancipation from a troublesome job have cropped up in all his books. They also all have a single scene of orgiastic hedonism featuring the debasement of women. Minor’s name is shortened to Lucy, a glancing allusion to the feminizing, arguably softening effect of the naming of Eli and Charlie Sisters. DeWitt is unafraid to meddle in effluvia — the blood, cocaine, and sex in Ablutions; the B-movie violence of The Sisters Brothers, the surreal perversions in one scene here — and then there is the obvious symbolism, an atmosphere of pathological melancholy surrounding failing relationships and unrequited love, particularly from a male viewpoint.
So returning to the question with which we opened, are we left entertained, or something else? Or both? If we are to measure amusement in smiles, and pages turned per hour, then this succeeds on that front. DeWitt has solved the hard problem of chasing a much-loved novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize with something just as engaging, and in places, funny. The verse-like coda is sweetness, in extremis: Minor’s heart described as a “church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows.” We are distracted — depth is hinted at — we move on.
And that’s where one might leave it, if it weren’t that the author is so clearly trying for something more, a desire to impress on us that with beauty and knowledge comes only sadness. In his acknowledgements, deWitt lists 19 authors, 15 of them men, whose work he considered when writing the book. And that’s when the trouble starts. To begin, that’s because it is hard for Undermajordomo Minor, indeed, any book to stand up alongside I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, one of the authors cited. There are obvious similarities: both books consider young men’s early dreams colliding with disenchantment. In Hrabal’s novel, a once zealous character — who worked in European hotels — ends life in a sustained period of Schopenhauerian asceticism and abnegation of will. Minor, meanwhile, just doesn’t seem to learn. The list goes on: Dennis Cooper’s George Miles Cycle is arguably much more brave, shocking, and unrelenting in its descriptions of violence, drugs, and sex. Coover knowingly subverts fairy tales, but more rigorously deconstructs his narratives. Sammy Harkham, like C.F., another comics writer, is immensely innovative with his narrative structure and unforgiving in the density of his ideas. DeWitt also cites a fair smattering of existentialist writers — Thomas Bernhard, Knut Hamsun – whose straight talking introspection can easily be seen here.
All that aside, it’s obvious that listing these writers sets deWitt up with an insurmountable task, and every author seeks inspiration from a diverse array of sources. But if we return to Huyssen, that deWitt has chosen to decontextualize such a large palette of writers from at least 10 different countries — influenced by their tone, settings, structural interests, imagery — seems a very contemporary phenomenon. Curiously, the field he describes in his acknowledgements is dominated by literary fiction — including Robert Walser, who once worked as a servant in a castle — and not genre writers, whose writing this book overwhelmingly resembles.
With The Sisters Brothers, deWitt was casting his line into a pool arguably underpopulated by mainstream fiction. With Undermajordomo Minor, he is fishing in much more crowded water. On the one hand, this book is extremely entertaining, but he’s purposefully undermined the neatness of Zweig or Dahl to deprive us of the greatest “satisfaction,” if we are to use the words of his own character. On the other hand, if deWitt wants to make great art, he’s got to push as hard as the people he is drawing upon. The profundity he achieved in his debut, and now craves again, may still be another book or two away.
Love and work are the subjects the British novelist Anthony Powell covers in O, How the Wheel Becomes It! and Venusberg two slim novels, recently reissued by University of Chicago Press, which bracket his monumental 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, written over the course of almost 15 years, from 1957 to 1971. Still relatively lesser known in the United States, the Dance series is one of the great achievements of 20th-century literature, and perhaps the greatest portrayal of (mostly upper-class) British life from approximately the 1920s through the 1960s.
In his introduction to Venusberg, which Powell published in 1932 when he was only 27, Levi Stahl astutely notes the differences between Powell and the author whom he is often thought to resemble, Evelyn Waugh. Both wrote about the educated upper classes and had enormous skill at skewering their pretensions and obsessions. But where Waugh was highly self-conscious of his status as an outsider and desperately wanted to be included among his subjects even as he savaged them, Powell developed a different style. He writes more as an insider but one removed from the social whirl by almost incomprehensibly sensitive social antennae. “Waugh’s books are arguably funnier (though some sections of Dance hold their own), but they also have an angry, cruel, even nihilistic strain. Waugh’s satire is scorching, leaving little behind but blasted ground. Powell, on the other hand, while refusing novelistic happy endings, presents a more hopeful outlook: his early novels tend to include at least one character who yearns, if fitfully, to live a life with meaning.”
The Brit abroad novel in this era of Brick Lane and a multiethnic Britain may seem the most tiresome of tropes. Moreover in this era of YouTube, cell phones, and Snapchat, the possibility of real strangeness or feelings of isolation in foreign travel are almost impossible to recover, in addition to the sometimes unpleasant colonial overtones some such novels evoke. In Venusberg, however, the charm and humor of such a setting comes through, even as Powell searches after deeper themes. Venusberg is the name of a hapless Baltic town to which the main character, a writer named Lushington, goes purportedly on assignment. In fact, he is running from a woman, Lucy, whom he loves but who loves another. Lushington’s fellow travelers are refugees from their own sort of romance, homes, and countries they left or were forced to leave (or as is the case with a mother and daughter traveling together, a Habsburg Empire that is no more.)
The long boat trip gives Powell the opportunity to indulge his finely tuned sensibilities to differences in class, wealth, and station, and to develop what Stahl describes as “his remarkable talent for grotesquerie,” though one leavened by a humane sympathy. Thus his protagonist finds among the passengers a disaffected (and possibly fraudulent) count and others thrown about by the disaster of post-World War I Europe. Included among these is Ortrud Mavrin, a married Austrian woman with whom he begins an affair. Inevitably, Lushington befriends her husband, an older professor, with some comic results. Once in Venusberg, he becomes entangled with a member of the British diplomatic delegation, da Costa, who is his rival for his Lucy’s affections. Other figures include the valet Pope, possibly fake Russian aristocrats, and various nobles, soldiers, businessmen, and bureaucrats who operate in a semi-totalitarian political environment.
The love story that is the moving plot of the novel focuses on whether Lushington will continue to pursue his indifferent object of affection at home, or follow Mavrin, the European lady of mysterious background. This is perhaps a metaphor for British writers seduced by European modernism (which Powell by and large was not), or more generally the exoticism the Continent held for many British. Venusberg is, in legend, a place of seduction that captivates its admirers who must tear themselves away to return home, and the tension in the novel is how, or whether, Powell will have Lushington make the break.
Wheel, the first novel Powell published after completing Dance, has a decidedly smaller geographical ambit, but a much longer temporal one. Powell excels at the long arc; what makes Dance most compelling is the realistic way Powell describes aging and the passing of years, with all the sexual, professional, and social triumphs and disappointments those years offer. Powell makes us feel both weighted with the passage of time and also satisfaction at the unfolding of full adult lives, which I think is perhaps Powell’s real lasting literary gift.
Wheel follows a writer and critic named G.F.H. Shadbold and the petty and at times absurd world of literary culture. Powell knew this world well, and his send-up of literary pretension is classic. Shadbold is haunted and embarrassed by the memory of a half-forgotten novel of a dead man whom we would now term a “frenemy,” a schoolmate turned stockbroker named Cedric Winterwade. Shadbold has himself becomes something of a middling literary figure, with early promise but who chose instead a more certain if unimaginative career; after “the slimmest of slim volumes of verse,” and some indifferently-received novels, Shadbold settled into something like literary respectability.
Notwithstanding the comparative leanness of his output Shadbold was not to be dismissed as a lightweight, a mere hack. He has worked hard reviewing other people’s books up hill and down dale, tirelessly displayed himself on the media and elsewhere…[and] also always prepared to offer views on marginally political subjects for which he was less accredited by instinct.
Shadbold married a writer of potboiler detective novels, who is much more successful than he. However, Winterwade comes to dominate his thoughts. Shadbold learns Winterwade kept a diary in which it is revealed he was the more prodigious lover when they were younger men together, including having an affair with a woman Shadbold himself desired. This revelation raises old feelings of sexual jealousy, even after a remove of years, especially when the woman, Isolde, comes back late in Shadbold’s life; in the process, he learns Winterwade was in some respects a better man than he. Moreover, Winterwade’s literary fortunes are rising on the basis of that one novel, decades after his death. Winterwade retains the promise of young man cut down before his prime, while Shadbold must struggle with the realities of a writing life that has its share of grubbiness and self-promotion. Isolde pleads with Shadbold to help resuscitate Winterwade’s reputation.
Stahl is right that neither of these books is likely to eclipse the magnificent work that is Dance. However Venusberg is valuable because we see Powell working out perspectives that would later form the basis of Dance in the form of the novels’ narrator, Nick Jenkins. But it is the work of a young man and some of the dialogue and scenes, while surely sharp at the time, do not carry the same resonance today. But for those not yet ready to tackle Dance, Wheel is a work of the mature Powell, very sensitive to those unforeseen changes in fortune or circumstance that occur throughout life and which give the book its title.
Since publishing his debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, in his home country in 2013, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud has been accused of much, but being unambitious is not among the many charges.
That’s what happens when you take as your inspiration Albert Camus’s 1942 absurdist masterpiece, The Stranger, and craft a complex and clever piece of storytelling that operates on multiple levels, simultaneously acting as a personal confession and an indictment of present-day Algeria.
Camus, the French Nobel-Prize winner, took the literary world by storm with his debut novel in 1942. It told the story of a detached French Algerian, Meursault, who kills an Arab on a beach for no apparent reason other than sun and sweat clogging his eyes. Meursault’s later conviction is based largely on the judgment of his character, including his inability to exhibit emotion following his mother’s death — or any emotion at all, really — rather than on the fact that he committed the crime.
Daoud’s novel has had something of the same rousing effect as Camus’s — written in French, it’s sold 100,000 copies in France alone. Taking as his novel’s main conceit that The Stranger is a true story, and that Meursault is its author, The Meursault Investigation tells the story from the perspective of the brother of the Arab murdered by Meursault.
The brother, Harun, now an octogenarian, shares many similarities with Meursault, even acknowledging as much during the course of the novel, which is really one long monologue in the style of Camus’s The Fall. “I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.” Here is what he sees: Two men driven to murder, two men haunted by their mothers, and two men who approach religion with disdain.
But the two do diverge.
For one thing, Meursault and Harun are moving in quite opposite directions.
Meursault has divorced himself from history, has, as he tells the investigator tasked with questioning him following his crime, given up analyzing himself. Assigning meaning to the world is something he has lost the energy to do.
Harun, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to impose form on a lifetime of quasi-intelligible incidents, the foremost of which is the murder of his brother and its aftermath, which has sentenced its victims — Musa, Harun, their mother — to anonymity.
“There’s not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward,” Harun tells his interlocutor. “The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.”
If Meursault is the stranger, Harun’s brother is the invisible man. But the tragedy here is that Harun understands he can’t will his brother into being, that he’s forever been written out of history by Meursault, in whose book “The word ‘Arab’ appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once.”
In this way does Daoud, a popular columnist in Algeria who has become a vocal critic of the government, set up one of his main theses: that both the French colonial system, the French Algerian population of which (known as pied-noirs) populated Algeria for a century and a half, and Algerians themselves are complicit in the country’s current state of affairs.
As Daoud sees it, the Arab continues, in a way, to be shot over and over again on that same beach, sentenced to a posthumous anonymity, but instead of Meursault being at fault, today it is by his own hand. As he explained in The New York Times, the current Algerian government uses French colonialism as a fear tactic, and has turned Algeria into a “typical” Arab country operating under the control of “a de facto dictatorship with Islamists, oil, a vast desert, a few camels and soldiers, and women who suffer.”
It is important to note that Algeria did not partake in the Arab Spring. Maybe it’s the fact that two devastating, and devastatingly long, wars wracked the country over the last 60 years — the Algerian War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, and the Algerian Civil War, which lasted most of the 1990s and left tens of thousands of people dead. Whatever the case, as Daoud noted in an essay in Guernica in 2011, while Algerians are often outspoken individuals, the last time there was anything like a national will was 20 years ago.
All of this carries deeper resonance when one considers how this atmosphere has impacted Daoud, who had a fatwa placed on his head by a little known imam last year.
In an absurd twist both Camus and Daoud could admire, The New York Times reported it wasn’t even clear what the fatwa was for, whether it stemmed from “Mr. Daoud’s outspoken television appearances abroad or his novel’s character, who rebukes a neighborhood imam. Or perhaps both.”
What was clear was that a religious figure in the country thought Daoud’s words worthy of death and a threat towards him socially acceptable. And he was right; authorities were nonplussed by the incident.
Harun’s final act is certainly provocative, heretical even. It echoes The Stranger’s own denouement, in which Meursault denounces God as a waste of time, and life as meaningless. But even more than that, Daoud’s narrator, while recounting his story, is also recounting that of his homeland, one that has taken a few bullets of its own in the last half century.
As in The Stranger, where no Arab is ever addressed by name, so too do Algerians of today operate nameless in the shadow of their rulers. And just like Harun, just like Meursault, they’ve come to recognize the absurdity of their predicament and, instead of rising up, have capitulated to the crime of life.
Harun knows that his time is running out. He’s come to terms with this, inasmuch as he can. The real question is what lies in store for his country.