Thursday, January 1, 2015
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane]
The Middle Passage (Naipaul)
V. S. Naipaul says he was encouraged to write this book by Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first premier, yet the book is hardly the work of a booster. Naipaul’s description of a return to Trinidad, the island of his birth, after years in the U.K. and then through Guyana (then British Guiana), Surinam, Martinique, and Jamaica is insightful and vivid and all-too-relevant more than fifty years later. His observations on the societies generated by years of exploitation are devastating and precise. On issues such as the internalization of inferiority by colonial peoples, including an account of the gradations of color consciousness, he is a subtle and revealing informant. The inclusion of documentary material such as excerpts from newspaper accounts is effective whether or not the idea occurred to the author as a means of padding his essays. Some have attacked Naipaul for backward politics, attacks later reinforced by revelations of his sometimes nasty personal life, but such strictures do not affect the book’s value.
Apart from its candor in describing the conditions history has wrought in the Caribbean and the nearby South American mainland, The Middle Passage was also entertaining as an account of a traveler who visited remote places at some risk to health and person. With introductions to local notables and a willingness to penetrate deeply into the bush, Naipaul has written a book both informative and readable.
Out of Africa (Dinesen)
About to head to the airport, I picked up a mass market paperback of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa with a cover picturing Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Three times during my journey fellow travelers noticed and spoke to me, each time about the film. I suspect a copy of Seven Gothic Tales would have drawn no comment at all.
One may read Out of Africa as a documentary of colonial life. Though today she would not refer to her African workers as “boys” (or even, indeed, as “natives”), her keen eye and long residence had given her a deep understanding of the Kikuyu and the Somalis with whom she dealt. She records much precise information about the encounter between traditional African and modern British life in a rural environment as well as about the constant challenges of farming itself. This value, however, shrinks in juxtaposition to her beautiful lyrical descriptive passages which occasionally rise to an almost mystical celebration.
Much as I enjoyed these flights toward the sublime, I relished even more he many oblique, odd, unaccountable anecdotes, sometimes beginning with a phrase like: something very strange happened to me one morning . . .” The informality she allows herself in the section titled “From an Immigrant’s Notebook” accommodates many such reflections on the enigmas everyone encounters which for her seem always touched with the light of the marvelous.
The book’s elegiac tone surely arises from the gap between her exact and detailed yet highly edited idealization of Africa as Eden and the less attractive experiences she underwent while living there. She suppresses much (notably her husband) and a good deal of the narration occurs during a time she was losing friends and lovers as well as ultimately losing the farm. Even with such issues in the background, she manages to strike a note that will resonate even with those who have never left home.
I, the Jury (Spillane)
Though it has been tied to the Romantic predilection for the thrill of fear, the hard-boiled detective novel in America is more simply seen as satisfying the timeless human fondness for sex and violence evident in Roman amusements and broadside ballads. A late exemplar of the genre, Mickey Spillane’s hero Mike Hammer exaggerates the cynicism and controlled lust of his predecessors Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Using a plain style without the striking similes that adorned the work of Hammett and Chandler. Spillane deploys utterly unapologetic super-masculine violence in the service of individual revenge motifs that would have made sense to an Old Norse warrior or an Albanian. To him the even a contemptuous mention of homosexuals (who “were hiding out behind the door when sexes were handed out”) is titillating, and torrid love or sex or simple nakedness scenes appear suddenly at any moment, fulfilling thereby, to a certain prescribed extent, the promise of the lurid covers. Though on good terms with Pat Chambers, the cop on the case, Hammer operates solo, a lone wolf whose identity is wholly self-forged and who owes nothing to society. In this he resembles America’s cowboy heroes. The title indicates the lead character’s anti-social self-sufficiency. Following Spillane crime fiction had exhausted the type exemplified by Mike Hammer’s macho character; the genre had no choice but to take new directions.