Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Tomorrow-Tamer - Margaret Laurence
These stories take place in Africa. In some the main character is British, in others African; in all the cultures interact. But Laurence is a writer of fiction – a good one – so we experience this troubled interaction through people and the situations they’re in. She presents very different ways of seeing the world, but she does it with the non-judgmental attitude of an anthropologist: one way is not right, the other wrong. Laurence is a Canadian, white, but the white characters are no more fully-realized than the black ones. She lived for many years in Somalia and Ghana. You can live in a place and not understand it; Laurence understood. I may have given the wrong impression by using the words “anthropologist” and “culture.” Human feelings are at the core of every story. My favorite is “The Perfumed Sea,” about two highly unusual lovers.

Akenfield - Ronald Blythe
Blythe was a novelist who wrote this sociological study of a small farming village in England, circa the late 1960s. He gives us the words of fifty residents; that’s what the book is, people talking. I’m sure the phrasing of the monologues was altered somewhat, though the minds that emerge are those of distinct individuals. We have insight into a variety of personalities, we get various (and varied) world views. A farm-worker, a wheelwright, a schoolmaster, a blacksmith, a thatcher, a magistrate, a sheep farmer – these are some who come forward to tell their stories. In the older folks there’s a remarkable depth of knowledge about their craft (the jobs involving manual labor are far more complex than I had imagined); also, they have intense pride in their skills. In the young, growing up in a time of mechanization, those qualities – depth of knowledge and pride – are disappearing. Though this is a sociological study, Blythe captures the complexity and scope of life in its two forms – that of the community and that of each of the fifty individuals. He does so in an absorbing and unobtrusive way. But, like so many skilled craftsmen, writers of his caliber are disappearing. It’s sad to think of that; but every bit as sad to think that there’s no one to whom I can give this book – no one is interested in Akenfield or Akenfield. So I’ll close (in resignation) with the last words from the last person to speak – the gravedigger: “I want to be cremated and my ashes thrown in the air. Straight from the flame to the wind, and let that be that.” *

Apartment in Athens - Glenway Wescott
Written in 1945, this is anti-Nazi propaganda. Which is no criticism; we need propaganda in time of war. My gut reaction shows how well Wescott succeeded: I hated Kalter, the German who confiscates the home of a Greek family and ultimately destroys their lives. But the book is more than propaganda. It’s primarily an exploration of the thoughts and emotions of the four member of the Helianos family, particularly the husband and wife. In many ways the marriage of this mismatched couple has been rocky; but, partly due to the stress of their German visitor, the bond between them deepens. Who writes about lovers approaching old age, long-married, aware of the faults of the other, no longer physically attractive, no longer feeling sexual desire? Mr. and Mrs. Helianos are not heroic in a conventional sense, but Wescott has written a book of heroism. What triumphs is simple love. *

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