Saturday, October 1, 2016
Notes on Recent Reading (Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam)
Anthills of the Savannah (Achebe)
Chinua Achebe’s last novel, published twenty-one years after A Man of the People, again engages the theme of sub-Saharan African “democratic” politics, portraying a land utterly lost to avarice, tyranny, and corruption. My own experience is limited, but he seems right on the money. Since independence the continent has suffered decline due to neo-colonialism, domestic profiteers, HIV, and helplessness in the face of world capitalism, and it is proper that the most eloquent protests should come from Africans. Achebe’s readers know how skilled he is at writing a readable and informative novel. Not for nothing is Things Fall Apart a school and university favorite. If the characters here seem mere types (the tyrant, a collaborator, a radical, a more detached female love interest), it is because they are in service to their theme. I, for one, was taken by surprise by the dramatic events that constitute the final portion of the story, including the sudden deaths of two leading figures, and a concluding ceremony for an infant that seems to point suddenly toward cheerier possibilities which I am afraid for me seemed altogether unmotivated.
I enjoyed particularly the passages in pidgin and the oratory of the Abazon elder, but this may be peculiar to my own experiences in Nigeria decades ago.
The Country of the Pointed Firs (Jewett)
Jewett’s near too-fond vignettes of the coast of southern Maine and its people will always have a significant place in accounts of American regionalism, but those interested in camp and kitsch may see in it embryos of the ironic aesthetics so popular in the Modern era. The author was in fact a native of South Berwick, though her family was among the town’s most affluent, and she strayed regularly to greater cultural centers. In this she differs from writers like Mark Twain who, despite his immense success and sharp satiric bite essentially never left his rural Missouri upbringing or George Washington Harris whose Sut Lovingood is wholly a figure of fun. Jewett depicts her characters with warm condescending affection as “dear old things” among whom the narrator is a (presumably urban) intruder set apart by education, taste, and manners yet sufficiently sociably adept to appreciate the people of the boondocks and to ingratiate herself with them. My strongest impression from this reading was a powerful sense of the harshness of the environment, both for those who sought a living at sea and on land, and a hardihood in response that seems a throwback to the Old English. If Jewett seldom writes a memorable descriptive passage or even an attention-getting figure of speech, she is never guilty of verbal missteps, and her prose is clear and refreshing. She may not evoke tragic sensations, but she plays at sentimental and pathetic with a light and restrained hand.
I was in Ogunquit shortly after Labor Day and my first thought, upon turning into town and seeing holidaymakers thronging the sidewalks, was, “I might almost be in Puerto Vallarta.” Yet I ate my lobster and was glad.
Cruel Tales Villiers de l’Isle-Adam
Those who fancy Oscar Wilde and Huysmans will likely know Edmund Wilson’s excellent Axel’s Castle with its title reference to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s prose poem Axel, in which the hero notoriously says, “Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous" (“Living? Our servants can do that for us.”) Axel itself is far less well-known and the author’s other efforts, notably short stories, but also journalistic pieces, plays, and poetry have even fewer readers. Yet anyone with a taste for the decadent and perverse will enjoy these brief tales, though a few seek to prove their point at too great a length, most are well-turned, with a refined sense of irony and a relish for a sort of modulated horror. Some border on horror or science fiction, while others devote themselves to provocation. The modern reader can agree with Verlaine (if not with his capitalization) who placed Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in his pantheon of Les Poètes Maudits, calling the author “VERY GLORIOUS. “