1. Lost somewhere in the storage room of my childhood home is a videotape of me, at 8, surrounded by the colorful scraps of a Christmas morning. Off camera, you hear holiday music and conversation. On camera, center frame, dressed in sweater and jeans, I sit in a fugue state, picking aimlessly at the plastic of a packaged action figure. I stare at my hands. I stare at the carpet. Separated from the present moment, intently searching for something that isn’t there in front of me. My mother asks what’s wrong. I shake my head, as if in a dream. A minute later, she asks again, as if speaking to a shy puppy: What’s the matter? The one-sided dialogue between earnest mother and mute son continues for another minute. Then, as if exhausted, the home video cuts to another, cheerier scene from that December morning in 1990. For most of my adult life, this brief snippet of film has been the defining image of melancholy: that intense—and, truth be told, intensely pleasurable—disposition caught halfway between nostalgia and depression. It’s a disposition I’ve carried with me throughout my life, and in those brief moments on that home video it’s captured, like low-definition footage of some mysterious woodland beast. What, exactly, is that little Zak thinking? What is he feeling? Says Webster: “a depression of spirits.” Says Oxford: “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.” Then there’s Robert Burton’s seminal (and exhausting) tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, with a definition so lengthy, so convoluted, so comprehensive and contradictory that it requires 1,382 pages. It’s a book I discovered only a few years ago, during a (yes, melancholic) walk among the shelves of a local bookstore. Recently, like one of Burton’s melancholic scholars, I took it upon myself to finally sit down with his Anatomy as a way to better understand, to reconnect with, the boy in that home video—and the man he’d become. Ignorant of the book’s contents aside from its umbrella theme and its bricklike heft, I assumed somewhere in these pages would be a passage that could illuminate my own experiences. Look to the past, history’s great teachers tell us. And yet I learned, perhaps too quickly, that one doesn’t approach this encyclopedic book with such utilitarian intentions. You’d be just as well-served planning a trip to Asia using The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as your guidebook. Burton cautions his reader as much in his lengthy introduction, written under the name of Democritus Junior (the fictional descendent of a melancholy philosopher and coeval of Socrates): Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in this following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good. If you, like me, are looking to read The Anatomy to self-diagnose, to cross-check Burton’s list of symptoms with your own, don’t bother. You’re melancholy. In fact, as Burton suggests, we’re all melancholy in one way or another. And I imagine he’d find our 21st century just as rife with melancholy as his own 17th-century world. 2. “The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues,” Burton writes, “as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” Nevertheless, Burton takes it upon himself to bring some order to these symptoms and causes in the first partition of The Anatomy, and it was with a great amount of curiosity and glee, along with a muted feeling of dread, that I combed through these hundreds of pages in search of myself. To begin with is my lifelong love of perhaps that most emblematic form of melancholy recreation: reading. All too often in my childhood, I’d escape from the company of my peers with books: comic anthologies, movie novelizations, children’s magazines. I’d tuck myself into corners and live in other worlds while the real one continued just out of earshot. As a college student, I passed on parties for the private corners of library stacks and department buildings. As an adult, I’m never so deliciously alone as I am with an open book in a crowded coffee shop or subway car. Burton was onto this. Over the span of several dozen pages, he bemoans the “misery of scholarship” and the dangers of “overmuch story” as a fertile ground for melancholy. No wonder, then, that in imagining myself reading in public spaces, I often recall a line of concern expressed by another mother of a melancholy youth: Queen Gertrude, who, spying on her son in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, remarks: “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes / reading.” To complicate matters, Burton lists reading as one of the possible ways to alleviate melancholy spirts: Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles, and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned…For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader! Scattered throughout Burton’s tome are other pieces of myself, as a child and as an adult. I come across these passages like a patient who’s uncovered a psychiatrist’s notes, written in an archaic tongue and encompassing years of 50-minute private confessions. The paranoia the socially shy feel in the company of their peers: “If two talk together, discourse, whisper, jest, or tell a tale in general, he thinks presently they mean him, applies all to himself.” The overcompensation of one’s melancholy disposition with laughter and good cheer: “Humorous they are beyond all measure, sometimes profusely laughing, extraordinarily merry, and then again weeping without a cause…groaning, sighing, pensive, sad, almost distracted…” The walks of my everyday life (around the neighborhood of my youth, in empty spaces after the departures of family and friends, through parks and city streets with just my thoughts and my earbuds): “But the most pleasant of all outward pastimes is that of Aretaeus, deambulatio per amoena loca [strolling through pleasant scenery], to make a petty progress…” The envy of others’ well-earned success: “He tortures himself if his equal, friend, neighbor, be preferred, commended, do well; …and no greater pain can come to him than to hear of another man’s well-doing; ‘tis a dagger at his heart…” And above all, the ever-present sorrow and rumination: an “inseparable companion…as all writers witness, a common symptom, a continual, and still without any evident cause…grieving still, but why they cannot tell.” [millions_ad] 3. Burton devotes half of the third part of his Anatomy to melancholy’s relationship with love. And who among us would disagree that love—whether a one-night stand or a multi-decade marriage—isn’t tinged with its own special sort of sweet sadness? Both in the closet and now long out of it, I’ve been convinced of the connection between homosexuality and melancholy. The sadness that comes from being strange, different, set off at an unwanted remove from the rest of society. The inward-facing anger at being forced into a specific sort of solitude one doesn’t necessarily want. The secret life lived wholly in the mind because it can’t be borne into reality without consequences. There’s little homosexuality in Burton’s book (a scant mention of sodomy among sexually frustrated monks; the heroic love between Achilles and Patroclus), but still much I can relate to when it comes to the subject of longing, of unrequited (and requited) love, of lust and jealousy as a part of the melancholic lover’s disposition. And while a proud, open life can do much to alleviate the dangers of sexual and emotional repression, I’m not entirely sure the melancholy disappears so quickly. We carry our queer melancholy with us, everywhere, and all our future loves and relationships are tainted (or, perhaps, blessed) by this baggage. 4. Of cures for melancholy, Burton has much to say in the second partition of The Anatomy. Over several hundred pages, we’re drawn through ancient and early-modern methods for purging, curing, and alleviating one’s black moods. Confessing to a friend. Massaging one’s body with oils of chamomile and roses. Inducing vomit with laurel and sea onion. Eating early. Undergoing surgical procedures with knives and hot irons. There's nothing in these pages, however, of the cures I’ve experimented with over the years in an effort to purge myself of my perpetual gloom: the after-work therapy sessions, the late-night Google searches, the chat forums and inspirational blogs. And the pills: medications that Burton’s cadre of physicians and scholars, with all their talk of hellebore and leeches, could never have imagined. Ours is a modern world where there is, it seems, “a pill for that.” In such a world, of what uses are Burton’s medieval cures? (How quaint, how curious, how funny, I think as I put down The Anatomy to swallow my daily 40 milligrams of Prozac.) But to cure myself entirely of my melancholy disposition? To cut it out of my body and keep it in a jar where I could observe it at a safe remove? I’ve long since given up on that project—not out of defeat but rather out of a strange sense of respect. Temper it? Yes. Keep it in check so it doesn’t interfere with everyday life? Of course. But to rip it out of my brain entirely? Alas, those roots run too deep. Take away my melancholy and you take away my very identity. 5. The New York Review of Books edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy I carried around with me like a millstone this spring is notable for two reasons. The first is the introduction by the always-insightful William H. Gass, who shares Burton’s love of language, of the uncanny effects of words piled on words piled on words, of sentences which achieve “the tone of a tirade that, in the midst of its fury, smiles at itself.” The second is the front cover, a detail of a 17th-century vanitas painting by Philippe de Champaigne featuring a skull the color of leather and an hourglass caught in the middle of its span—appropriate reminders of life’s ephemerality, of the ever-present realities of death and the passing of time. And yet it’s an inaccurate representation. Look at the entirety of the tableau online and you’ll see what’s missing from this detail is a tulip, positioned to the left of the skull, its petals almost on fire with color. As any practicing melancholic will tell you, there’s sadness and anxiety in our outlook on life. But there’s also beauty. Always, on some level, beauty. And the well-lived life of a melancholic recognizes all three of these aspects—beauty, death, time—as working in concert. This is melancholy’s truth: It is both blessing and curse, boon and bane. Inside that little boy’s head all those years ago, inside mine right now and forever, is an ever-persistent struggle between sweet and sour, joy and sorrow. A temperament that, according to Burton, has room for both “a thousand miseries” and “sweet music,” for “a thousand ugly shapes” and “rare beauties.” Had I only had Burton’s words to share with my mother back then on that Christmas morning. Had I only been old enough, wise enough, to tell her we all, in one way or another, live with private melancholies. That the most enlightened among us have a respect for our long-anatomized disposition. That some of us, much to Burton’s consternation, wouldn’t live life any other way. Image: Wikimedia Commons
1. Most serious consumers of culture are, in one way or another, indebted to Susan Sontag. More than a decade after her untimely death in December 2004, it’s difficult to deny the resonance of her essays, whether it’s “Against Interpretation,” the 1964 ur-text that would solidify her reputation as a public intellectual; On Photography and Illness and Its Metaphors, with their trenchant takedowns of how we take photographs and live with cancer; or her last major work, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she lays bare our own culpability in viewing images of suffering. One cannot read a Susan Sontag essay and come away unscathed about the modern world: how we see it, how we capture it, how we live and die in it. One marvels to imagine, were Sontag alive today, what she would think (and write!) about our hyper-connected, Instagram-and-Twitter, President-Trump, ISIS-threatened world. Then again, this is one of the defining characteristics of a great thinker, a great polemicist: You wish she or he were still around to illuminate our present moment, to help us make sense of the whole damn mess. For me, Sontag is, first and foremost, a cultural gatekeeper. It was through her essays and think pieces that I learned not so much about her aesthetic arguments as about the works supporting them: the novels of W.G. Sebald and Victor Serge; Jean-Luc Godard’s tragic Vivre Sa Vie and Ingmar Bergman’s hallucinogenic Persona; Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. I am forever indebted to her for introducing me to an entire canon of work I’d likely never have encountered without her guidance (or, admittedly, her name-dropping). Then there’s another canon of work I’d never know of were it not for Sontag’s essays and her intellectual mystique (the furor of her cultural passions, the near-impenetrability of her writing, that skunk-white stripe in that black mane): her fiction. 2. When we say we love someone, what’s implicit in that statement (if we mean it genuinely) is that we love the person with all their faults. We love the best of them and the worst of them. So to say I love Susan Sontag’s writing means I must come to terms with the fact that much of her fiction just isn’t that good. It’s a personal judgment I’ve struggled with ever since I first decided to plow my way, like an icebreaker, through novels I’d been warned were cold and impenetrable; fiction too frozen in ideas to allow characters to live and breathe. What saved me from giving up at the start, I imagine, was starting in reverse, with her 2000 National Book Award-winning novel, In America, and, after it, 1992’s The Volcano Lover. (Her earlier fiction being hard to find in bookstores, I had little choice to but to read backwards.) I didn’t understand what the problem was. Where others saw limp narratives, I saw historical novels in which time and place were the reason to keep reading. Where others complained about Sontag inserting her own thoughts, wedge-like, into the prose, I relished a writer daring enough to poke her head out from behind the curtain of history. I’d never before read contemporary historical fiction where the author begins her book with a “Chapter Zero,” in which she eavesdrops on a 19th-century dinner party in Poland and, in essence, walks us through the process of how a novelist transforms history into fiction. Or an author who’d step out of time, breaking a dramatic moment in which an 18th-century diplomat stands on the lip of a volcano for an aside on public suicide in the streets of 20th-century Manhattan. I still consider The Volcano Lover and In America two of my favorite novels. I’m in love with their strangeness, their mixture of romance and critical thought, their language and style, the beguiling ways they flirt with our expectations of how a historical novel should sound and read. I stumbled away, awestruck, from my first reading of these two books certain I’d encountered not just a good novelist but a great one. Then I read the first 50-odd pages of Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor. Then I read an excerpt from her second novel, Death Kit. Then, for fear of ruining the taste of Sontag’s last two novels, of my entire conception of her as a fiction writer, I decided to call it quits. 3. The recent release of Debriefing: Collected Stories by Sontag’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which brings together the stories in Sontag’s 1977 collection, I, etcetera, as well as several standalone pieces), spurred me to rethink my stance on Susan Sontag’s fiction. Yes, there was a selfish opportunity to re-read The Volcano Lover and In America, but there was also a reason to finally make my way through the bland and baggy early works. It was a chance for me to figure out, as someone unashamedly in love with Sontag’s work, what exactly went wrong. It starts, I found, with reading her fiction chronologically. To do so transforms the mission from a search for what went wrong into a search for what went right; a chance to witness a writer’s skill grow over the years instead of wane. Nearly 40 years passed between the original publication of The Benefactor in 1963 and the publication of In America in 2000; in that span of time, it’s clear just how much Sontag transformed as writer of fiction. If one places the stories collected in Debriefing at the center of this, what emerges is something of a triptych in which the stories, many written during this span, act as the central panel on either side of which is Sontag the apprentice and Sontag the master. 4. No one reads The Benefactor for pleasure. Instead, one reads it out of a sense of duty, out of the desire to be comprehensive. A complete reading of the novel—memorably slow, memorably arduous—reveals what I understood the first time I flipped through its pages: the book is just plain dull. One can argue the pros and cons of novels that rely too heavily on a character’s dreams, but in The Benefactor, dreams are really all there is. The entire novel is structured around a series of highly detailed dreams that haunt the cultural libertine Hippolyte: the “dream of two rooms,” the “dream of the unconventional party,” “the dream of the mirror,” to name but a few. We spend the novel following Hippolyte as he mingles with fellow enlightened Europeans and labors over the philosophical implications of his dream life. At one moment, Hippolyte proclaims, “What a promise the dream is! How delightful! How private! And one needs no partner, one need not enlist the cooperation of anyone, female or male. Dreams are the onanism of the spirit.” Indeed, a novel in which dream leads to dream leads to dream leads to dream soon become masturbatory, to our detriment. (Alas, Hippolyte, you require the cooperation of one person to tolerate your dreams: the reader!) In the context of Sontag’s essays, The Benefactor reads like a way for Sontag to play with concepts she writes about in pieces like “The Aesthetics of Silence” (one of Hippolyte’s lines: “I am looking for silence, I am exploring the various styles of silence, and I wish to be answered by silence.”) and “Against Interpretation” (Hippolyte again: “Let nothing be interpreted. No part of the modern sensibility is more tiresome than its eagerness to excuse and to have one thing always mean something else!”). This is less a novel of ideas and more an idea of a novel, something just as cold and sterile and obscure as one of the narrator’s nighttime fantasias. 5. Death Kit, published four years after The Benefactor, takes these dreams to such an extreme that the entire book reads like one long, uninterrupted dream. It, too, like a dream, fades away as soon as the reader awakes. Our libertine is replaced by a humdrum advertising executive named Dalton “Diddy” Harron, a man Sontag describes as a mere “tenant” in his life (the ghost of an early suicide attempt hangs over his head). On a business trip to upstate New York, Diddy might or might not murder a railroad worker in a Raskolnikovian attempt at shattering societal norms. While some of the novel is dedicated to pursuing this mystery, the majority of it is spent following Diddy’s daily life (often in strange indented asides and bizarre shifts in tense). It’s slightly fantastical, deeply Kafkaesque, but undermined by the novel’s impossible length. And here we see the chief problem with Sontag’s early novels: there’s not enough going on to warrant the real estate of a 300-page novel. While her intellectual ideas condense well into digestible essays (that, nevertheless, require fervent chewing beforehand), packed inside characters we’re expected to follow for hundreds of pages, they’re impossible. And yet where Death Kit succeeds is at its close, where we get a glimpse of Sontag’s narrative style at its best. Walking through a train tunnel in an effort to prove to his blind wife, Helena, that he really did murder a railroad worker, Diddy finds himself, alone, in a surreal series of chambers, like the Catacombs of Paris, packed with corpses. Sontag’s frequent obsession with lists (see numerous entries in her two volumes of journals and notebooks, Reborn and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh) here takes on the shape of a macabre inventory of American history. The earliest specimen Diddy could find belonged to the seventeenth century: a Pilgrim with a broad-brimmed hat, round stiff collar, breeches, and buckled shoes. But nearby, many modern types. A banker in a top hat and striped pants and cutaway coat. A boy in his Cub Scout uniform. A registered nurse. A policeman, one of New York’s Finest...In another room, only firemen. Decked out in their uniforms, with rubber boots to the tops of their thighs. Many with the huge, red, oval-brimmed hat that’s their trademark. Cocked on their skull; not so much rakishly as awkwardly, since the head, with or without meat and hair on it, tends to slump forward...Over there, a catcher for the San Francisco Giants—if one can trust the evidence of the uniform and the mask whose metal bars cover the dead man’s lean, contorted, well-preserved face. It goes on. And on. And on. Restraint is something Sontag won’t discover until her last two novels. Taken as a piece on its own, however, this conclusion to Death Kit illustrates the strengths of Sontag’s shorter fiction. 6. According to Benjamin Taylor in his woefully brief introduction to Debriefing, Sontag’s short stories are “where we go to know Sontag most intimately.” It’s an apt word, considering that much of her short fiction feels of a piece with Sontag’s journals and notebooks. Several stories, in fact, look and feel as if they were assembled from Sontag’s private scribblings, using diary entries, daily logs, and notes as methods for organizing narrative information. “Project for a Trip to China” tries to create a story from sparse notes and phrases and jottings (“Consider other possible permutations.”, “Chinese patience: Who assimilates whom?”, “Why not want to be good?”). So, too, does “Unguided Tour,” in which we find the source of that most iconic (and overused) of Sontag quotes: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” “Old Complaints Revisited” takes the form of secret messages by an unnamed narrator intent on defecting from a cult-like organization. “Baby” is divided into one-sided conversations during therapy sessions between two parents and a psychologist in which they vent their frustrations with a son who appears to be both old and young at the same time. While these and other stories are as obscure as Sontag’s first two novels, it’s their brevity that gives them power, that allows the reader to more willingly engage with Sontag’s intellectual preoccupations. Debriefing opens and closes with what, either deliberately or coincidentally, are two of Sontag’s most memorable, accessible, and human stories. The first, “Pilgrimage,” recounts a moment in Sontag’s youth when she and a friend paid a personal call to the German giant of letters Thomas Mann, then living in exile in southern California. There’s a humor in which Sontag retells the story of being in “the very throne room of the world in which I aspired to live.” And Thomas Mann continued to talk, slowly, about literature. I remember my dismay better than what he said. I was trying to keep myself from eating too many cookies, but in a moment of absent-mindedness I did reach over and take one more than I had meant to. He nodded. Have another, he said. It was horrible. How I wished I could just be left alone in his study to look at his books. Then there is “The Way We Live Now,” Sontag’s most well-known story (and rightly so). Built around a series of conversations between a group of friends in which the gaping hole, given no voice of his own, is the one friend ill with AIDS, “The Way We Live Now” strikes the perfect balance between formal inventiveness and emotional force. It’s appropriate this story comes at the end of a collection in which form and feeling appear at odds (with form usually winning the day). Here, feeling triumphs. Life triumphs. The story’s last line: “He’s still alive.” 7. Both The Volcano Lover and In America are the only two Sontag novels where characters feel like human beings instead of automatons. They’re also, curiously, the only two Sontag novels to fully entrench themselves in the female voice, to engage with women who feel alive with lust and rage and agency. While the body of The Volcano Lover belongs to “the Cavaliere” (Sontag’s stand-in for the famed British diplomat and collector Sir William Hamilton), its spirit belongs to women, specifically his second wife, Emma (the future lover of Horatio Nelson, here simply “the Hero”). The Volcano Lover leaves no question that it’s concerns are about more than just Enlightenment masculinity, Enlightenment ideology. The magisterial final section of the novel, after the death of Hamilton, belongs to the voices of four women who were previously background characters: the Cavaliere’s first wife, Catherine; Emma’s mother (posing as her maid), and Emma herself. But it’s the last monologue, written in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the revolutionary Italian poet executed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, that reads like an act of rebellion. It’s a scathing indictment of the story’s anti-republican heroes that leads up to the novel’s haunting final lines. Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or wellbeing. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all. In America’s Maryna Zalenska, a stand-in for the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, emigrates with her husband and son and several other compatriots to Anaheim, Calif., where they aim to start a commune. Typical of most commune-set novels, the utopian adventure doesn’t turn out as planned, and Helena leaves to rediscover herself as an actress in defiance of the trappings of her gender’s expectations. “Will American audiences accept the idea of a woman who leaves her husband and children not because she is wicked but because she is serious?” Maryna’s husband, Bogdan, asks himself late in the novel. (Even as he, in this new world, unearths his suppressed love of the male body.) The obvious connection between these two late, mature novels is their reliance on history. Speaking to Charlie Rose in 2000 about In America, Sontag noted her use of history as “a trampoline” to “tell a great story that’s very resonant.” One gets the sense that, with the structure of the narrative already provided, Sontag was finally free to invent and reinvent at will while still satisfying the demands of a traditional story. The reader, too, feels this palpable freedom, this spirit of adventure, when reading The Volcano Lover and In America. 8. Sontag, with her typical self-awareness (or, critics would argue, her typical self-absorption), knew she was on to something with what would turn out to be her last novels. In that same Charlie Rose interview, she notes that most writers tend to do their best work in the first third or half of their writing careers. “I think my best work is now,” Sontag says. “I think these books are better. I think I’m freer. I think my writing is more expressive. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I think my access to myself has changed. I think I was going through a kind of narrow door, and now I’m going through a big wide gate.” She goes on to describe her younger self not as a storyteller so much as a ruminator; someone more interested in the process of consciousness than in making that consciousness accessible to those of us who live outside her mind. We are grateful that Sontag changed and that we have for posterity these two powerful examples of her storytelling potential. Our only sadness about these novels (and this, too, is the measure of a lasting writer) is we won’t get any more.
1. It was in 2002, while an undergraduate at James Madison University, one of many colleges nestled among the villes and burgs of southern Virginia, that I first discovered the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. I still have the same copy of his novel, Season of Migration to the North, I purchased from the university bookstore for a world literature course: a burnt-orange Heinemann paperback edition, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies. On the front cover: the visage of a woman, carved as if from stone, a sun beating like a heart below her throat. On the back, a giant bookstore barcode, above which are the words SALIH USED. What struck me most then, and still does, was the author photograph. It’s a face that reminds me of my father. Both men have the same tight curls of black hair, the same broad noses, the same drooping earlobes. They both wear the same ill-fitting shirt collars, they both wince when they smile, as if hesitant to display happiness. The first time I saw that face, I remember feeling rent by coincidence, by history. There’s me: the first-generation Sudanese immigrant, my genes muddled with those of an American-born mother, barely cognizant of the details of his cultural history. Then there’s my father: now 74, a journalist born in a small Nile village two hours outside of Khartoum. And, between us, there was now Tayeb Salih: the Sudanese novelist whose only relation to us was that same five-letter surname, with the same vowel sandwiched like a tiny person between the “l” and the “h.” I’ve picked up Season of Migration to the North four times in the 15 years since I discovered it; or, rather, since it was thrust upon me by a professor. The first reading was an academic one, in conjunction with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, to which Salih’s novel reads like a direct response, a way for the colonized to seize the narrative from the colonizer and hand it back, pretzel-twisted into something strange and unique. The second reading, in 2007, was prompted by a piece I wrote on overlooked books for the Baltimore City Paper titled "Sexing Up Colonialism: Tayeb Salih’s Novel Plows a Different Organ into Darkness’ Heart." The third reading, seven years after that, was for no reason other than curiosity at seeing the book’s yellowing spine while rearranging my bookshelves. Finally, last month, I opened Season of Migration to the North once again, this time in the company of my father and several other Sudanese immigrants. It was this reading, and the discussion that followed, which gave new meaning, new weight, to the novel’s magnificent opening line, one that captured me from the first time I read it: “It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.” 2. In the same finished basement in the northern Virginia home where I spent so much of my childhood—playing eight-bit video games at sleepovers, sneaking down to watch soft-core cable porn, sitting at an electric typewriter and writing absurdist stories about my classmates—my father now hosts monthly book club meetings with his Sudanese friends. For several hours, the group of four or five men—journalists, professors—drink tea and coffee, eat cookies and crudité, and talk. The books they discuss are usually political, usually esoteric, always about Sudan, and always read (and discussed) in Arabic. One day, I asked my father why he and his friends never read and discussed novels. He didn’t have an answer for me, so instead he posed a challenge: Find a novel, in English, about Sudan, and we’ll read it. And you can join us for the discussion. Even after decades of voracious reading, my knowledge of Arab literature, like my ability to read and speak the language, is pathetic at best. Everything I know about Arab literature I learned (in translation) from comparative lit classes, where I was first introduced to works like Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habiby’s surreal The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, and Edward Said and Jean Mohr’s photo essays, After the Last Sky. But of all these books, it was Season of Migration to the North to which I felt most compelled to return, yet again, like the novel’s nameless narrator who keeps returning, from his adult life in Khartoum, to the village of his childhood. The chance to read this novel outside academia, among the men who actually lived it, who were very much Salih’s contemporaries and who shared the same lives and experiences as the fictional Sudanese villagers who imbue this short novel with so much human force and vitality, was too potent to pass up. It was also, I confess, a blatant effort to come even closer to my own heritage—or as close as I could manage after so many years as a young kid outright rejecting it. Like most mixed-raced children, I was raised in a manner that, for all its inclusiveness, was nevertheless confusing. I never knew to which camp, which tribe, I belonged. Yet I drew my battle lines right from the start, opting to shrug aside as much of my Sudanese self as I could: the Arabic lessons I never took to heart; the Ramadan fasts I always broke during lunch at school; the Sunday visits to the community mosque through which I’d sit and suffer and wait for snack time; the circumcision of my birth name, Zaki, for the more pronounceable, more Americanized “Zak.” Only in college and graduate school, when I came out of the closet and joined another tribe, did I begin to appreciate, to respect, the personal history I’d ignored for so long. Suggesting Tayeb Salih’s novel, joining the late-May book club meeting, sharing my thoughts on the novel not with lit majors and newsweekly readers but with my Sudanese elders—all of this, I suspect, was an attempt to redeem myself, in some small way, from decades of personal neglect and ignorance. 3. Published in 1966 and translated into English three years later, Season of Migration to the North begins with a return: that of the nameless narrator to Wad Hamid, the Sudanese village of his birth, after years of study in Europe. There, he encounters the mysterious, Kurtz-like character of Mustafa Sa’eed—himself returned from years abroad in Europe, albeit under more sinister circumstances. Sa’eed shares the story of his life in 1920s London as a scholar of English literature and a rampant womanizer who feeds off the cultural fetishes of London women. These lovers, invariably, end up destroying themselves. Two of the women commit suicide; the third, Jean Morris, is murdered by Sa’eed in a scene that recalls William Shakespeare's Othello (or, just as well, the icepick murders in Basic Instinct). A testament to one’s maturity is being able to discuss such frank sexual matters in the company of one’s father and his friends. But there’s no way to sidestep the issue; Season of Migration to the North is suffused with psychosexual themes. As Sa’eed suggests, his reckless relationships are revenge for the infractions of European colonialism, and throughout the novel you find the common colonial trope of land as a fertile woman waiting to be seeded. In many ways, Sa’eed’s adventures in London fulfill the anxieties one finds in late 18th-century works inspired by the fear of reverse colonialism: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to name but two. Consider one of the novel’s most chilling lines, spoken by Sa’eed: “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis.” After serving a prison sentence in England, Sa’eed returns to Wad Hamid, remarries, and lives a traditional life. Soon after sharing his story with the narrator, however, Sa’eed disappears (it’s implied he drowns himself in the Nile). The narrator is left with the terrible knowledge of the poisonous relationships between men and women, between East and West (or, in this case, south and north), between colonizer and colonized, between tradition and modernity. The narrator—like my father, like his friends, like myself—is torn between a life in the West and the traditions of his village. Then there’s the troubling legacy of colonialism. As a college student dabbling in cultural relativism, I would shudder to hear my father speak about how grateful he felt toward British colonialism: to the river steamers, to the railways, to the British educational system. I thought he was insane. And yet, it was this very system that allowed my father to go to college, to study abroad in America, to create for himself his own destiny outside the doum trees and mud-and-brick huts of his village. A reading of Season of Migration to the North disrupts this idea, however much truth there is to it. Addressing the court during his trial for the murder of Jean Morris, Sa’eed says: The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us to say “Yes” in their language. They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history. 4. There were four of us in the basement that Saturday afternoon, sitting at polite distances from one another on the curving sofa, sipping pitch-black coffee from tiny cups and saucers, holding our respective copies of the novel (a handsome reprint by NYRB Classics, a floppy paperback in Arabic, my own well-worn Heinemann edition). The conversation was decorous, respectful. In the presence of my elders I felt quieter than usual; I felt like the narrator does when listening to the conversations between his grandfather and other villagers, among them the hyper-sexed Wad Rayyes and the uninhibited Bint Majzoub. I felt like an eavesdropper or worse, a tourist, obliging these men to speak in English instead of Arabic. At one point, a small argument sprang up between two of my father’s friends over the politics not of Salih’s novel but of his life. Mr. Shuaib, born in Darfur, toothpick-slim and militant in a snug green jacket, insisted at great length that we not forget the author’s faint praise of Sudan’s military regime and that this colored one’s reading of the novel. Mr. Babiker, born in a Khartoum suburb, relaxed in cargo shorts and t-shirt, decried such a political reading, insisting we should enjoy Season of Migration to the North on the merits of its language as opposed to its politics. I debated lobbing some hefty rock of literary theory into the conversation, the “death of the author,” perhaps. Instead, I just listened as the two men argued over whether or not Salih’s work for Gulf-state rulers somehow discredited his literary ideas about the world being big enough for everyone. Then there was my father, who reminded me of Tayeb Salih in looks and, more importantly, in the trajectory of his life from Sudanese village to Western metropolis. This is where I learned my father had met the author twice. The first meeting was in the late 1960s, while my father was a journalist in Khartoum working for the newspaper al-Sahafa. He managed to squeeze in a few minutes of conversation with Salih, who was there being interviewed by the paper’s books editor. My father’s questions, he told us, were anything but literary. Was it true the London buses ran on time, and that Londoners could set their watch according to the bus schedule? Was it true the British had stiff upper lips? (Of course, as he put it, my father shied away from the real questions he wanted to ask: What were white Western women like? Did Mr. Salih really know women like Mrs. Robinson? Did he sleep with women like Isabella Seymour, like Ann Hammond, like Jean Morris?) In the early 2000s, my father met Tayeb Salih for the second and last time. Over the intervening decades, my father had followed in the author’s footsteps somewhat, traveling to America on a loan from the government to study political science and journalism at Indiana University (where he finally met, and married, a white Western woman, my mother), opting to stay in the U.S. instead of going back to Sudan, working as a Washington correspondent for Arab newspapers and newsmagazines. During this second meeting, my father was less concerned about the West and more concerned with the East, with questions about what it meant to be a Muslim, about the anxiety of return. Midway through the conversation, a fourth person came down into the basement: a young professional, American-born, in his early 30s, named Mr. Elrayah. When prompted to share his thoughts, Mr. Elrayah spoke of how the novel evoked the experiences he’d had every summer as a young boy during his visits to Sudan, how Salih’s novel suggested the courtyards, the palm trees, the raucous and ribald conversations in his village of El-Kadarou. I sat there, watching him speak, thinking how far removed even this experience was from my own. I’d only been to Sudan twice in my life. The first time was in 1989, when I was seven years old and too young to remember anything but the vaguest sensations of interminable air travel. The second was a decade later; I was 17 and in a state of contemptuous despair at being forced to come to Khartoum, this strange land that was so far removed from the comforts of my unassuming suburban life. (I remember with shame how I bawled when we’d missed our first return flight back to the U.S., terrified I’d be trapped in my father’s village for the rest of my life.) Everyone else in this room had palpable connections with their Sudanese histories. And what did I have? After all the years of neglect and disinterest in my Sudanese heritage, all I had was this slim paperback novel I kept rolling and unrolling in my hands. I put on a good face and, when it was my turn to speak, gave my usual undergraduate talking points on post-colonial literature, on the anxieties of reverse colonization. Underneath, however, I felt like more of an outcast than I ever had. I felt distraught, displaced. I felt, appropriately enough, like the novel’s narrator, who finds himself caught in the middle of the Nile: half-way between north and south. I was unable to continue, unable to return. I turned over onto my back and stayed there motionless, with difficulty moving my arms and legs as much as was needed to keep me afloat. 5. Season of Migration to the North ends with the narrator’s weak suicide attempt in the Nile, a cri de couer that’s also a cry for help. In all my years of reading, it remains one of the most palpable, affecting endings to a novel I’ve yet encountered. Then my mind cleared and my relationship to the river was determined. Though floating on the water, I was not part of it. I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born—without any volition of mine. All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. I shall live by force and cunning. I moved my feet and arms, violently and with difficulty, until the upper part of my body was above water. Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!” The tenuousness, the tension of the narrator trapped in the middle of the Nile—Will there be anyone to help save him from drowning? How much longer can he stay afloat, stay alive, on his own?—is what makes it so arresting, so haunting. In the weeks since my father’s book club meeting, I’ve reread, once again, Season of Migration to the North—as well as Salih’s collection of short stories on village life, The Wedding of Zein. Taken together, they’re a portrait of a world and a time that I’ll only ever know through literature and through the shared experiences and stories of my father and his contemporaries. I suppose it was enough for me to connect with others, for a few brief hours, over what these pages mean, why I keep returning to them after all these years. This is what we mean when we talk about the consolation, the community, literature provides. Season of Migration to the North is a 169-page umbilical cord connecting me not just to my Sudanese side but, in a more direct manner, to my 74-year-old father who has managed to survive—and thrive—suspended between two worlds. It’s his suspension, this thrilling existential high-wire act, which inspires my own. It’s also a suspension that, as it does for the novel’s narrator, requires outside assistance. Just a few days ago, working on this piece, I had a few questions. So I called the only person I could think of. The phone rang twice, then the familiar voice, rich with age and experience, said hello. “Dad,” I said, “I need your help.”
“This will be very hard for you.” -- Alan Moore, Jerusalem (spoken by an angel) Day 1. Jerusalem, the new novel by Alan Moore, sits on my desk, thick and foreboding. At 1,279 pages, it’s a behemoth compared to the author’s last prose work, Voice of the Fire, a relatively scant 304. One doesn’t just dive into a novel this size without testing the water. So I hold the book in my hands (it’s heavy, as expected, like a dense loaf of bread). I flip through the pages (the resultant breeze feels nice on this soupy summer day). I read over the marketing copy (vague, as expected). I think back on other Alan Moore works I’ve enjoyed (Watchmen, of course, but also his true magnum opus, the Jack the Ripper study From Hell). I wonder why I’ve taken up the task of reading this novel when my shelves are a graveyard of similarly sized ones, finished (Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day) and unfinished (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) alike. I think: Alan Moore’s an imaginative storyteller. Despite Jerusalem's intimidating size, it should be fun. I also think: Maybe I should be reading this book on a Kindle. Day 2. There’s no clear way to approach Jerusalem other than to plunge in, so I do. I’m a little over 200 pages in and already getting a sense of how Jerusalem is less a “mere” novel and more a grand literary project: an ambitious attempt by Moore to encapsulate the soul of his hometown of Northampton, England. The city was the same setting for his first novel, in which its spirit was captured by polyphonic voices speaking to us from 4000 B.C. to the end of the 20th century. So far, Jerusalem is a novel the conceit of which (chapters told from different characters’ perspectives at different historical moments in different literary styles) has more strength than the story. I’m briefly introduced to Mick and Alma Warren, modern-day sibling residents of Northampton on whom the rest of the novel’s events (both past and present) supposedly hinges. I’m more excited to be thrown back into the past in chapters the disparate subjects of which seek to cast Northampton as the omphalos of England; the nexus of existence in which can be gleaned the entire story of humanity. This is an obvious Joycean undertaking, and it goes a long way toward explaining (and perhaps justifying) Jerusalem's generous length. Moore’s writing is nothing if not hyper-descriptive; baroque, even. One wonders if this is compensation for the lack of visuals that accompany his similarly grand, tangled comic book narratives. These early chapters cross the point into self-indulgence. But just as I’m about to give up, Moore casts me into a different time frame and I’m enthralled. One moment, I’m peering over the shoulder of a fresco restoration artist in St. Paul’s cathedral hallucinating (or not) a conversation with an angel. The next, I’m following a drug-addled sex worker walking Northampton’s streets in 2006. If there’s one thing uniting his characters here, it’s their station as members of the working class. They live and work in The Burroughs, Northampton’s lower-class area and the site of frequent tension with the forces of redevelopment. Is there some kind of equitable justice above these streets? Some cosmic force that can set things right? Knowing Moore’s work, I’m sure these questions will have not just metaphoric answers, but literal ones as well. Day 6. I decided not to bring Jerusalem with me on a three-day vacation. So now I’m back at home and hunkered down in Alan Moore’s Northampton. My new goal: read around 150 pages a day. I carry Jerusalem with me everywhere. I take the novel on public transportation to and from work, where it sits open in my lap like an infant. I try to read it on the elliptical machine at the gym, an awkward task that means I’m switching to a reclining stationary bike for the next week or so. I dip into the novel during my lunch break, after dinner, before bed. This is heavy reading in more ways than one. The density of Moore’s prose forces me to constantly come up for air. And yet, I’m never tempted to stay above water for long. I’m intrigued by the characters: a Benedictine monk making a spiritual stop in medieval “Hamtun;” “Black Charley,” an American transplant and one of Northampton’s first black residents; the struggling modern-day poet Benedict Perrit, doing what all us struggling writers do best (namely, beg friends for drinking money). Some characters, like the aforementioned poet, we follow from the moment they wake up to the moment they return to bed at close of day. Moore pays particular attention to mapping the city streets his characters wander. I’m reminded of a similar scene in From Hell, where Dr. William Gull’s calculated perambulations past London landmarks ultimately reveal the shape of a pentagram. I’m also reminded of W.G. Sebald, whose semi-fictional wanderers uncover the psychogeography of particular places; the secret histories trapped in landscapes and buildings. There is true world-building going on here. Whitmanesque, these pages contain multitudes. And I’m starting to realize these disparate voices aren’t that disparate at all; in fact, they’re delicately interconnected. Figures from the past and the present, alive and dead, bob and weave and brush up against one another. This book, I’m learning, is haunted by history. Day 7. One of the most striking things of Moore’s best work over the years: his focus on the nature of space-time; of time as a fourth dimension; of past, present, and future all happening at once. Time, in his Weltanschauung, is an architectural dimension that can be mapped and explored. It’s the same philosophy that haunts Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and that propels Jack the Ripper’s legacy through time in From Hell. Jerusalem is a startling expansion on these ideas. While ideas of space-time have appeared in nearly every chapter so far, they’re concentrated in one marvelous section I’ve just finished. Snowy, a member of the Vernall clan (of whom the siblings Mick and Alma Warren are present-day descendants), hangs off the top of a building while below, in the gutter, his wife gives birth to a daughter. During this moment of suspended time, Snowy explores the idea of the world as an “eternal city” -- one in which everything has been preordained. There’s something frightening (and oddly comforting) about this philosophy, which borrows from the poet and mystic William Blake (an influence on Moore’s work), Friedrich Nietzsche's myth of “eternal recurrence,” and the ideas of like-minded thinkers. We’re meant to see this idea as not a curse but a kind of hope. If it’s true, it means, in a sense, I’ll be reading this book forever. Day 8. I’m now over 400 pages in, and I’ve just discovered that Jerusalem is also available in a three-volume slipcase edition. My wrists ache. While the economy of reading an enormous book in more manageable, digestible “books” are a comfort (see a similar edition for Roberto Bolaño's 2666), I’ve convinced myself that by reading Jerusalem in its uninterrupted, single-bound version, I’m getting the more authentic reading experience. The 2016 Olympics are on in the background. Indeed, there’s something Olympian about reading Jerusalem as one entire text. I feel strong. I’m also glad I’ve opted out of reading Moore’s novel on an e-reader. I’d most likely miss out on the physical sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling the weight of this book gradually increase in my left palm and decrease in my right: one page, then 10 pages, then 50 pages. Day 9. The second hefty part of Jerusalem finally lays bare the vast supernatural cosmology Moore’s hinted at in previous pages, with all their angelic visions and ghostly hauntings. What he’s created: a three-tiered universe of Northampton: the Burroughs (in our everyday reality), Mansoul (a sort of astral plane from which all time and space can be seen, the name borrowed from John Bunyan), and a mysterious Third Burrough. For more than 300 pages, we follow Mick Warren on an odyssey through this landscape, the result of a near-death experience as a child in 1959. During the few moments where Mick’s body loses consciousness, we travel in and around this “world above a world.” We meet angels (known as “builders”). We meet demons (former “builders”). We meet a ragtag gang of ghost children called The Dead Dead Gang, some of whose members can literally dig through time. We’re flung back to seminal moments in Northampton’s history, spending the night with Oliver Cromwell on the eve of a decisive battle in the English Civil War and watching two fire demons, salamanders, cavort through the city and bring about the Great Fire of 1675. There are some indelible images in these pages, including the ghost of a suicide bomber who’s eternally trapped in mid-explosion (the rules of this afterlife being that the form you occupy is the form you had during your greatest moment of joy) and a serpentine ghoul that haunts the River Nene and plucks newly dead souls into her underwater purgatory. Day 12. It’s unfair to expect perfection from mammoth books. Yet the longer a novel runs, the more unforgiving a reader becomes about moments in the story that could be tightened, or excised altogether. Great Big Novels bring out the editor inside us all. I’ve spent three days trapped, so to speak, in the otherworldly realm of Mansoul. I’m starting to long for the voices of the humans back on three-dimensional Earth. Moore’s too talented a writer to waste his time (and ours) with much of this rambling middle section. You’ll get an important episode told from one perspective, then a shift in perspective in the next chapter that requires a recap of earlier events. This means pages go by before the narrative moves forward. Twelve days after starting this book (holding at bay, for the moment, the deluge of other reading materials in my life), I round the halfway point of Jerusalem. It’s the moment where the spine finally cracks and I can read the book on a desk without the use of my hands. I like to think I crack the spine out of necessity, not vindictiveness. Day 14. Moore, you sadist. I’m back on the human plane of existence, back in the polyphony of voices that is Jerusalem's strength. And then, on page 900, I’m dropped into a 48-page narrative from the perspective of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, Lucia, a patient at Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital. These pages are written in a mock-Finnegans Wake word salad built on puns and double meanings. It feels a little sadistic, placing such a passage here. It’s an inventive idea that’s fun at first, but, like a lot in this novel, it goes on for longer than it should. Also: I’m frustrated at being impeded so close to the end by having to sort through this linguistic playground. So here is where I make a confession. I skimmed. With a copy of the original Finnegans Wake looming over me on my bookshelf (similarly unfinished), I quickly stopped trying to parse the logic of each sentence. As soon as I got the idea -- al fresco assignations with men who may not really be there, painful memories of childhood abuse -- I moved on. Perhaps one day this section will be worth revising and translating. As of now, I’m rabid for Jerusalem to end. Day 15. Moore, you genius. A few chapters after my troubled date with Lucia Joyce, I come across one of the more brilliant, transcendent sections in the novel. It’s composed of a pivotal character’s final earthly moments interspersed with a fantastical journey in which his essence (along with that of his deceased granddaughter) travels into the future. Together, the pair witness the evolution of the human race, its eventual demise, the resurgence of giant crabs and land-walking whales as the new lords of the earth, the heat death of the universe, and the last spark of light before eternal darkness. It’s a lovely, touching moment that rewards my investment in this novel. Arriving on the heels of a farcical play (featuring the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare), it’s a testament to Moore’s skill at genre juggling, at cultivating a sense of awe at the universe’s frightening expanse and its beautiful mysteries. Day 16. Sixteen days later, making the final lap of a noir-ish detective story, a poem from the perspective of a drug-addled and ghost-haunted runaway, and a somewhat anti-climactic gallery opening, I arrive at the last page. I close Jerusalem and drop it on the floor at my feet. I don’t need to do this; it’s a purely dramatic gesture. The resultant thud is a satisfying testament to my accomplishment. I’m drained. But I’m also grateful. And a little sad. It’s a paradoxical feeling I get after finishing big books like this one. The quiet thrill of having been completely submerged in an author’s vision. The feeling of finally coming up for a merciful breath of air. The longing to read flash fiction by Lydia Davis. I’m still thinking about this fascinating mess of a book and its countless allusions (both major and minor): the art of William Blake, episodes of the U.K. version of Shameless, comic books, modern art and poetry, the time theories of Charles Howard Hinton and Albert Einstein, the hymns of John Newton, demons from apocryphal books of the Bible, H.P. Lovecraft, Melinda Gebbie (Moore’s wife), Tony Blair, Jack the Ripper, Buffalo Bill, billiards, global warming, the Crusades, the War in Iraq, the end of the world. A cacophony of material that doesn’t always coalesce perfectly but that, fittingly, creates what one character describes as “an apocalyptic narrative that speaks the language of the poor.” And the mad. And the sad. And the frustrated, the lonely, the lost. In a sense, all of us. Day 17. My wrists stop aching.