The Narrow House (1921, Evelyn Scott)

There are eyes everywhere in The Narrow House; Evelyn Scott never misses a chance to draw attention to them. In this study of a family at war with itself, the most minor character is sure to have theirs described, from a baker’s ‘narrow good-natured eyes’ to the ‘inscrutably professional’ ones of a doctor. Major characters, especially women, have their eyes repeatedly described, whether they are ‘dull and confused with resentment’, ‘opaque with misery’, ‘violently hard’, ‘self-righteously excited’, ‘rapacious with humility’, ‘lustful with pity’ or ‘fixed and despairing’. Scott is painstaking, too, in charting the movement of her characters’ eyes as they variously meet and avoid one another’s gaze. A sad, neglected little girl has a terror of eyes, particularly her mother’s, while her lonely aunt wonders whether it would be better to be blind. Eyes, in this novel, are weapons; both looking and not looking at your enemy can serve as modes of attack or defence. A few examples:

He glanced at her, his solemn eyes twinkling with a kind of placid malice.

 

His eyes narrowed against hers as though he were shutting her out.

 

He veiled his disconcerted rather empty blue eyes under defensively lowered lids.

 

His daughter-in-law disturbed him and if he could avoid it he never looked her in the eye.

 

“I hope so, Mrs. Price,” he agreed, coming forward, his lids drooping as if to shut out the painful sight of them all.

 

Winnie’s eyes shone, mercilessly sweet, into the hunted eyes of the elder woman.

 

Winnie’s eyes, like brown bees, crept with their glance into the vague combative eyes before them.

 

His smoky eyes were everywhere and on no one.

 

Alice kept a rigorous gaze full of cruel pity steadily upon her mother’s face.

 

She looked steadily with her dissolving gaze against his unpenetrated eyes.

This ocular warfare takes place surrounded by mirrors and windows: mirrors that provide fragile reassurance for the beautiful and torment for the plain, windows that make faces of houses and train cars, that let in light that exposes and reveals. Light, and its absence, is a further authorial obsession. In a book of just over 200 pages, the word ‘dark’ appears more than 120 times, ‘light’ more than 90, ‘bright’ more than 50, while ‘pale’ appears 40 times. Then there are the colors. White gets the most mentions, but grey, black, blue and red also feature heavily, as do color compounds, such as purplish-blue, amber-white, gray-green, etc. Eyes, leaves, teeth, furniture, clothes are all assigned colors: there doesn’t seem to be any symbolic method or patterning here, simply the creation of a dazzling visual texture that is precise in isolation but cumulatively vague (‘vague’ is one of Scott’s favorite adjectives). The exciting, frightening possibilities and uncertainties of modernity, which set the members of the Farley family at each other’s throats, are both brilliant and diffuse, leaving the characters bewildered in a visual overload. The shifting volatility of the historical moment, its attraction to the new and strange, finds expression―particularly in relation to eyes―in the odd and sometimes contradictory use of adjectives and adverbs. I’ve already quoted ‘placid malice’, ‘mercilessly sweet’, ‘vague combative’ and ‘cruel pity’; there’s also ‘angrily caressing’, ‘dark bright empty’, ‘soft sharpness’, ‘languid and deliberate excitement’, ‘vague hard’, ‘sweet greedy’, ‘fiercely soft’, a humility that is ‘triumphantly cruel’. Heady stuff, at times teetering on the edge of silliness, but never less than interesting.

Scott was prolific and acclaimed in 1920s, but her career nosedived in the following decade, and she ended her life bitter, paranoid and forgotten. There have been attempts to rehabilitate her since then, with a few reprints and critical studies, but she remains obscure. The Narrow House, the first volume of a trilogy, was also her first novel, and is not without its crudities. Some of it reads as if it had been culled from an anthology of Imagist poems; the result is as hit-and-miss as this implies. The striving for a big effect can be strained, as in the hands of a clock being ‘rigid as the limbs of the crucified,’ or the empty rooms in a row of houses being ‘blank as the faces of idiot women waiting for love.’ Scott is sometimes guilty of piling too much in an untidy heap; it isn’t enough for a house at night to be ‘a monstrous phlegmatic beast half drowned’, its ‘inmates’ have to be ‘sightless parasites’ as well. ‘Inmates’ is a metaphorical way of describing the occupants of a house; the metaphor here doesn’t make a good fit with monsters and parasites. I also doubt many animals would be phlegmatic about the prospect of drowning. But there are plenty of goodies, too: wet wheel tracks ‘glistening and sinuous like black rubber snakes’; a character’s voice dying away ‘like the shed petals of a flower’; the smile on her face like ‘the still surface of a pool filled underneath with little frightened fish.’ There’s a particularly fine passage as a narcissistic wife returns to the awful house after a brief sojourn away:

It was foggy. The train passed through a railway yard and Winnie saw rows of empty cars, long and low, that were like monsters with lusterless hides and opaque eyes, submerged in mist. Hundreds of dull eyes stared from the dimly shining windows, the pale eyes of the cars.

  Delicate bridges floated over her head as the train passed beneath them, and the swinging arms of derricks and huge machines, lifted through the mist, were as frail as lace.

  Lights burst against the mist like rotted stars, and there were other lights that opened upon her suddenly, glad and unseeing as the eyes of blind men raised in delight.

  The moon, small with distance, slimed over with fog, was green like money lost a long time. The telegraph wires stretched across the pale landscape tautly, like harpstrings. One after another the flat branched poles seemed to open submissive palms to the passing train.

It’s not flawless. If the eyes of the blind men are raised in delight, you would only be able to see them if you were looking down, which doesn’t accord with the character’s position in a train. But otherwise, it’s great, especially the gracefully alliterative last line.

There isn’t much plot. The elements of a plot are present; they seem to promise a feverish family melodrama to match the feverish intensity of the prose, but it never quite materializes. There are events―a few of them quite dramatic―but Scott shows little interest in weaving them into an artfully told tale, opting instead for a bleary narrative drift from scene to scene, character to character, dipping now and then into some stream-of-consciousness, or a poetic rhapsody on the sky, leaving the crises to peter out. The book is concerned with impressions, suggestions, atmospheres; the narrative propulsion is weak. What moors the novel, keeping it from floating about freely in the realms abstraction, is the author’s masterful depiction of her characters, which are conceived with a psychological acuity that recalls a more traditional novel. Some of them are quite familiar as types―the frustrated young spinster, the pompous moneyed oaf, the weak shambling patriarch―but they are given enough depth and strangeness to avoid cliché. Scott can be a heavy-handed writer, but her touch can also be deft and amusing.

Mr. Price came up to her and gave her a dominating caress. “Well, Winifred, how are you, my dear little girl?”

  She returned his perfunctory kiss, her moist lips cool with distaste.

  “Feeling pretty badly, dear?”

  “No, Father. I’m feeling pretty well.”

  He cleared his throat. He was disappointed.

The Narrow House isn’t a lost masterpiece, but neither is it a mere historical curio. It is certainly a very good first novel―good enough to suggest that Scott’s bibliography might just include the odd masterpiece or near-masterpiece, or else a respectable number of works of more modest excellence. What about The Wave (1929), which contemporary reviewers praised to the skies, and which was reissued in 1986? A big, big book about the Civil War told from multiple perspectives seems an obvious candidate for inspection, perhaps too obvious. At any rate, my interest in this writer has been awakened.

The Story of Hong Gildong (date and author unknown, trans. Minsoo Kang)

The basis of numerous films, TV shows and comic books, Hong Gildong is a brief, rollicking piece of popular entertainment featuring a legendary outlaw endowed with superhuman powers. Like Robin Hood, he steals from the rich to give to the poor, and rights injustices committed by corrupt officials, but also winds up with a kingdom of his own. The interest of this work derives both from the brio of its storytelling and its status as a cultural artefact of late Joseon-period Korea. In his introduction, translator Minsoo Kang argues against the traditional attribution of authorship to poet and politician Heo Gyun (1569-1618) in favour of a much later publication in the mid-19th  century, at a time of political crisis and the growth of a mass-market readership that preferred exciting plots to the edifying texts consumed by the scholarly elite. Edification is not entirely absent in this instance, but excitement, humour, wonder and sentiment are far more to the fore.

There are three sections. The first deals with the hero’s birth and his troubled upbringing as the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister; the second relates his criminal exploits; the third takes the action out of Korea―first to China, and then to two fictional islands, of which Hong Gildong becomes king. The hero’s illegitimacy (his mother was a servant, and subsequently concubine, of the minister) is the motor for the plot, as all his discontent derives from the discrimination faced by illegitimate sons in an austerely hierarchical society. For all his astonishing strength, intelligence and virtue, the young Gildong realises from an early age that government posts will be barred to him; worse, he is denied the full affection of his father, who, in spite of the high regard in which he holds his son, is such a stickler for propriety that the boy is forbidden from addressing him as father.

The father-son relationship and its place within the dynamics of the Hong family is the main concern of the first section. Minister Hong is described at the beginning as an honourable man, but his behaviour throughout is questionable. Most disturbing is the conduct that leads to Gildong’s birth. Following an auspicious dream featuring a dragon, the minister tries to sleep with his wife (or, as the text puts it, makes ‘apparent his intention to become one with her in a decorous manner’), but is rebuffed on the grounds of his age and dignity. Instead, he sleeps with a young servant girl:

Although Chunseom was only a servant girl, she had a gentle nature and her demeanor and actions were always as proper as those of a respectable maiden. She may have been lowborn, but there was nothing lowly about her character. When the minister approached her so suddenly with an authoritative air and made apparent his ardent desire for her, she dared not resist his advance and allowed him the use of her body. From that day on she never ventured outside the house and showed no interest in other men. The minister was so impressed by her loyalty that he made her a concubine.

The domineering exertion of his power to satisfy his lust is bad enough; it might have been even worse had not Chunseom demonstrated her ‘loyalty,’ which is what persuades the minister to raise her status to that of concubine. It is clear that had Chunseom acted differently, Minister Hong might easily have kept her as a servant girl, or even cast her out, after getting her pregnant. Chunseom’s unswerving devotion, which is the mark of her virtue, might suggest an uncritical endorsement of male privilege, just as Gildong’s continuing reverence towards his father might suggest an uncritical endorsement of patriarchal authority, but the minister’s actions (particularly his gullibility in the face of the scheming of his senior concubine, which leads him to consider having his own son killed) leave him open to a heap of criticism, thus lending an ambivalence to the text. Similarly, while the adult Gildong displays to the Joseon king a mixture of impish defiance and firm loyalty, the king’s repeated failure either to capture the outlaw or utilize his talents within the state, as well as the implicit royal tolerance of ministerial abuses, weaken his authority. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak to this text, exemplified by the narrative’s clear endorsement of Gildong’s refusal to simply accept the second-class status society (including his father) would force on him, and the story has often been read as a subversive work. But, as Kang writes in his introduction, the subversive elements co-exist with more conservative attitudes (Gildong wishes rather to be recognized and awarded by the state than to overthrow it), resulting in an uneasy ambiguity perhaps reflective of the ambiguity and uneasiness of late Joseon politics, and also of the conflicting impulses within the popular market towards defiance of conventional morality and adherence to it.

The second section is the most entertaining, yet it also tests the tension between rebellion and obedience almost to breaking point. Gildong does not assemble his band of thieves from scratch, but rather wins control of an already successful outfit after a demonstration of his prowess; once the command is his, he warns that disobedience will be punished according to military law, refashioning his group so that it resembles the model of the royal army. Later, a general tasked with apprehending the criminal is seized and brought before ‘a great king dressed in a silk robe and a jade belt’ who sits on a high throne, and when the hero executes corrupt officials, he does so in the guise of a government inspector. Even as a bandit Gildong replicates the Joseon state, half as rival, half as loyal imitator. The motives by which Gildong claims to be guided aren’t always as pure as he claims, either. His first act of daring as leader is not a raid against an overbearing landowner or oppressive governor, but the looting of a Buddhist temple, its hapless monks being no match for the hero, who humiliates them with a glee bordering on the sadistic. Following the stunt’s success, he gives a speech to his men, solemnly commanding them not to steal from or harm the common people, or to take grain being collected by the government. Sure enough, he soon after steals grain from a local administrative centre. Perhaps we are to understand that this is not grain reserved for the common people, but the store of the yangban, or ruling class―but even if this is the case, would not the store simply be replenished at the commoners’ expense? In order to prevent innocent people from being punished for his crimes, Gildong advertises his own responsibility, but in doing so dishonours his family, breaking his parting promise to his father. As the outlaw’s notoriety spreads, the Hongs become increasingly endangered, yet each time Gildong promises to hand himself in for their sake, he eludes capture right at the last minute. His antics are funny, but there’s a strain of callousness, even cruelty, in the laughter. And what is his great aim in all of this? The demand he makes of the king is that he be appointed minister of war, yet in return he vows to leave the kingdom, which would leave him incapable of carrying out the duties of his post. It would seem that all he wants is an empty title free of any obligation to work.

Gildong’s powers being too great for Joseon to safely contain them, it is only natural that he should leave, just as he leaves his family. It is hard to see what other direction the story could have taken. Defeat and a glorious death, perhaps, but the problem would then have arisen of what to do with his family, as the relatives of traitors and rebels were deemed to share the offender’s guilt, and were often executed. Destroying the Hongs would have struck too sombre a note, so some potentially distracting device to save them would have been necessary. A reformed hero who renounces banditry and reaches an accommodation with the state would have been a terrible let-down, and so the simplest way to achieve a satisfactory ending is to remove the action from Korea. Granting him an invented kingdom to rule over, with his outlaw companions as his ministers of state, is an obvious conclusion. What is striking is that the fantastic elements actually decrease on fictional soil; there’s a bit of monster fighting in China, but once Gildong is made king of his make-believe island, he largely concerns himself with matters of ritual, ceremony and protocol; when he conquers new territory, it is through mostly conventional military means (no qualms about invading other lands, of course―might is right). The ending, though, is unexpected, calling to mind, of all things, Oedipus at Colonus―an oddly effective note of mystery and grandeur on which to end a diverting yarn.

Asylum Piece (1940, Anna Kavan)

Asylum Piece is a collection of linked short stories or sketches, vignettes of mental dislocation and encroaching despair. It might be possible to read the book as a novel, for there is a narrative thread running through some the pieces, but Kavan does not seem to be concerned with genre distinctions. There are three distinct sections. The first contains first-person narratives: a woman makes a desperate visit to a pair of mysterious, disapproving ‘patrons’; a woman suspects that she has an implacable unknown enemy; a woman conceives a fear of her house; the resident of a mental asylum derives fleeting comfort from watching the birds (which may not be real) she sees in the garden. It is implied, but not made explicit, that the narrator of each of these stories is the same person, an unsuccessful writer; certainly some of the narratives are linked as they contain references to the same ‘advisor’ and impending ‘judgement’, the nature of which is not spelled out. The stories depict the narrator’s experience of the world as a living hell of paranoia, confusion and hopelessness, in which almost everyone is hostile, in which every grey sky is an omen of doom.

In the chilling first story, the ‘victim’ is not the narrator, but a young woman the narrator identifies, by means of a birthmark, as an old school acquaintance, now apparently a prisoner in a foreign country. This opening sketch is like a small overture setting the tone for what is to follow, and is suitably oblique; we are not told the name of either the narrator or the prisoner (as a schoolgirl, she is referred to as ‘H’), and the foreign country and the crime of which the prisoner was convicted are unspecified. The sinister guards at the castle the narrator visits, and in which the prisoner is being held, might indicate an authoritarian regime (the publication date of 1940 is significant here), but this is never confirmed. Rather, they suggest the presence of a cruel, overbearing state power not limited to any particular ideology, and analogous to the hints of a similarly shadowy tyranny back in the narrator’s home country. The coded references to the dire political situation in Europe at the time of publication are elements of the wider theme of authority and control Kavan explores. In the stories that follow, various authority figures (usually male) appear, or are mentioned: the narrator’s ‘advisor’, her ‘patrons’, her husband, her nurse, doctors, police officers, her mysterious enemy. They dominate, reject, patronize, demean, confine and terrorize the narrator, resulting in an attitude that veers between crushed, submissive fatalism and a steely determination to endure. Kavan never lets on as to how much of the oppression faced by her narrator is to be taken as ‘real’ and how much is a product of her paranoid imagination, nor is it even clear whether the stories are set in the ‘real world’, nightmarishly distorted through the narrator’s subjective experience and relation of it, or take place in an alternate reality. Nothing is moored down or demarcated; the boundaries between the objective and the subjective, the external and the internal, are blurry and uncertain.

Perhaps the piece that best exemplifies this is the most uncanny of them, ‘A Changed Situation’, in which the narrator describes her growing terror of her house. The impassive solidity of the edifice melts away as the building, which is ‘of no definite architectural design’, and which was new when the narrator bought it, acquires an old part, ‘full of treacherous angles’. It is this old part (or newly old part) that occasions the terror. Here, readers might picture a building with old and new sections, an old house with a new extension, or a new house with a phantasmagorical old extension. A paragraph later, however, and there is no longer any mention of old and new parts, but of an old and new house―a single entity able to change appearance, or two entities with a symbiotic existence:

Lying peacefully curled up on a sunny day, the new house looks like a harmless grey animal that would eat out of your hands; at night the old house opens its stony, inward-turning eyes and watches me with a hostility that can scarcely be borne. The old walls drape themselves with transparent curtains of hate. Like a beast of prey the house lies in ambush for me, the victim it has already swallowed, the intruder within its ancient structure of stone.

The house is a life-form, a host for the parasitical narrator, who is destined to be spewed ‘like an owl’s pellet into the arches of infinite space’. The delusions of a disordered mind, perhaps, or even an allegory of the crushing by settled domesticity of an independent, creative woman. But there is no contrast with a familiar external reality or a ‘normal’ psychology. There are brief references at the beginning of the sketch to the narrator’s family, but they are vague and fleeting, as if these relatives had no presence. The piece ends with an image of the old house rearing its head up ‘like a hoary serpent, charged with antique, sly, unmentionable malevolence’―an image of sufficient power to make the question of whether we take the world as described by the narrator to be ‘real’ seem beside the point. Kavan does not seem interested in placing her readers in the position of clinical observers, safely examining the narrator’s mental disturbance from a situation of harmonious mental order. Rather, she seeks to puncture our own certainties about the world around us, poking at our odd suspicions and secret dreads, making us aware of the fuzziness of the dividing line between sanity and insanity. When viewed in the context of the world’s alienating cruelty and barbarousness, and its effects on the people who live in it, any distinction we might make between sanity and insanity is made to look, if not necessarily illusory, then at least of minor importance. To see oppressors in the forms of everyday objects and the natural world seems less extraordinary when one recognizes the pervasiveness of oppression and brutality in ordinary social life. Non-human forces range against the narrator in an alliance with her human antagonists, as in the following excerpt from the piece entitled ‘An Unpleasant Reminder’:

The day was ill-omened from the beginning; one of those unlucky days when every little detail seems to go wrong and one finds oneself engaged in a perpetual and infuriating strife with inanimate objects. How truly fiendish the sub-human world can be on these occasions! How every atom, every cell, every molecule, seems to be leagued in a maddening conspiracy against the unfortunate being who has incurred its obscure displeasure! This time, to make matters worse, the weather itself had decided to join in the fray. The sky was covered with a dull grey lid of cloud, the mountains had turned sour prussian blue, swarms of mosquitoes infested the shores of the lake. It was one of those sunless summer days that are infinitely more depressing than the bleakest winter weather; days when the whole atmosphere feels stale, and the world seems like a dustbin full of old battered tins and fish scales and decayed cabbage stalks.

Something as ordinary as a day of disagreeable weather becomes part of a cosmic vendetta against an individual; the mundane futility of those tins, scales and stalks stands for the whole world. Minor quotidian irritants collaborate so closely with larger traumas and disasters that it can be difficult to tell them apart.

After ten of these first-person narratives, there is an abrupt shift into the next section, entitled ‘Asylum Piece’. This is divided into eight short, numbered sketches, the first of them a surreal dream like something out of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the second the anguished musings and memories of an asylum inmate. The remainder of this section is composed of sketches, written in the third person, of various inmates, staff members and visitors at a psychiatric institution in Switzerland. Kavan extends her theme of authoritarianism, with unsympathetic doctors and relations (including a ‘fine-looking, clever, successful, debonair physician with his graceful, athletic stride’ and a middle-aged man admitting his fragile younger lover against her will) exerting a hard dominance over the mentally ill. She also includes small acts of tentative solidarity and compassion among some of the inmates and workers which, although they hardly amount to an effective resistance to power, yet provide a glimpse of an alternative to the stifling confinement, isolation and impotence to which, as Kavan shows, society condemns those who do not conform to its models of sanity. Near the end of the final episode in this section, a desperate young woman gives up at the sight of authority and huddles in a corner, ‘limp as a doll’; shortly afterwards, an older inmate, who had earlier attempted to intercede on her behalf, ‘enfolds her in a compassionate and triumphant embrace’.

The whole ‘Asylum Piece’ section could easily be read as the work of the narrator of the earlier stories, who is a writer (so perhaps a bit of metafiction going on here). Kavan returns to this narrator in the penultimate and final pieces, entitled ‘The End in Sight’ and ‘There is No End’, which are as cheerless as the titles would suggest. The closing image is of ‘a garden without seasons, for the trees are all evergreens,’ in which ‘there is no arbour where friends could linger, but only concrete paths along which people walk hurriedly, inattentive to the singing of birds.’ Kavan’s narrator is always attentive to the singing of birds and to the natural world in general, which can, at times, offer brief solace, but there is no obvious egress from those concrete paths.

Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc/Visions of the Sleeping Bard (1703, Ellis Wynne)

Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsc is one of the classics of Welsh prose; this is a judgement you will find in any guide to Welsh literature. If you’re not Welsh, the chances are that this judgement won’t mean much to you, for perhaps the only well-known work of Welsh prose is the much-translated, disparate collection of tales known as The Mabinogion. Even if you are Welsh―even if you speak Welsh―the chances of your being familiar with the title under review are not very great; Wynne can have few readers these days besides academics and their students. The work is obscure mainly because post-medieval Welsh literature is obscure in general, but there are other factors that keep a wide readership at bay. For those with no great love of religious allegory, Wynne’s schematic rigidity and on-the-nose portrayals of various types are unlikely to hold much attraction. Wynne’s religion is, as one would expect of a book published at a time of intense religious controversy, vehemently sectarian in nature, and his moralistic satire correspondingly harsh and unforgiving. Relentlessly, the message is hammered home: the vast majority of people now on Earth are knaves, fools and blinkered sinners deserving of nothing but scorn, and it is only a select band of the righteous who shall inherit the kingdom of God. What appeal can such a work possibly have today except as a historical curiosity? Few readers now will have the inclination or opportunity to judge the book’s worth for themselves, so why does it continue to be referred to as ‘classic’?

Tastes change. Wynne’s Visions (anonymous on their first appearance) were once popular in Wales, and went through several editions. The book was even translated into English―twice (first in 1860 by George Borrow, and then in 1897 by Robert Gwyneddon Davies, to be reprinted twelve years later). There was, then, for a long time a readership for the Sleeping Bard. It was a pious and respectable readership such as barely exists in the godless Wales of the present. But Wynne did not write merely a stern, edifying sermon; his work contains much that is crude and unruly, so that its second translator felt obliged, in the introduction, to express his disapproval, laying the blame at the unrefined sensibilities of a rougher age, and assuring the reader that ‘passages which might be considered coarse and indecorous according to modern canons of taste’ have been omitted. Perhaps these very passages were part of its former appeal. What might a reader today, at a time when canons of taste allow plenty of room for the coarse and indecorous, find of interest? Those unable to read Welsh will have to rely on the translations, both of which are freely available on the web. I have only skimmed Borrow’s version, which is, according to Gwyneddon Davies, ‘charming and racy’, but not particularly accurate. To my inexpert eyes, Gwyneddon Davies himself seems generally accurate apart from the occasional bowdlerization, and even has a fair go at charm and raciness once or twice, but on the whole he is a laborious stylist, often prolix and pedantic when the original is earthily direct. A short Welsh word becomes a longer English word; repeated words are unnecessarily weeded out and replaced by synonyms; oddities of vocabulary and syntax are smoothed over into blandness. To better convey the flavor of Wynne’s prose, quotations from the original will be accompanied by my own reworkings of Gwyneddon Davies’s translation, amended as I’ve seen fit.* I should stress, however, that I make no claims of my ability as a translator; my Welsh is a bit rusty these days, and I certainly lack the scholarly training a really professional job would require.

Some basic information. The book is divided into three sections, each of them containing a separate vision.** The first vision is of an allegorical representation of the world, the second deals with death, while the third provides a glimpse of hell. Wynne derived some of his inspiration from Los Sueños of Francisco de Quevedo (or, more particularly, from the translations by Roger L’Estrange and John Stevens), but although I haven’t read Quevedo, it’s clear that Wynne has created his own distinct work, rooted in the culture of Wales at the turn of the 18th Century. Paragraphs are almost entirely absent, the text running on in great unbroken chunks until the end of the section. Sentences are likewise long, with colons and semi-colons often appearing where a modern writer might place a full stop. Each section closes with a poem, each of these written in a different metre. Each section opens with the bland, guileless narrator falling asleep and being conducted on a tour by a supernatural guide (an angel for the first and third visions, Sleep himself for the second).

The first vision opens with the narrator ascending a mountain to regard the view with the aid of a spy-glass―a vision of something that is actually before him, though his ability to view it is enabled by artificial means. His own sight is weak, and so requires the spy-glass in order to see far over the Irish Sea (a bit of poetic licence, this, or else some exceptionally advanced lenses). His eyes, and then his mind, ‘journey’ for so long, that he becomes weary; Master Sleep (the same Master Sleep who will serve as his guide for the second vision) covers him with his cloak and locks up the windows of his senses. It is then that the dream-vision can begin. At first, it is something of a nightmare, as the dreamer is taken up into the air by fairies, who plan to kill him. Rescue arrives in the form of a shining angel, who tells him that the journey he is about to undergo is meant to instruct him on the folly of being unsatisfied with his life. Climbing hills to admire the view is potentially bad, and that bad is made worse by bringing a spy-glass along with you. Don’t pine after distant lands; stay down in your valley, humble and content.

The angel conveys the dreamer to a cloud far above the world, and gives him a special spy-glass that grants him a terrestial view of amazing clarity―except that what the dreamer sees is not the world as it is, but an allegory of it, with all human life contained within one gigantic city. Wynne economically provides a sense of concreteness to this allegorical vision:

Gwelwn un Ddinas anferthol o faintioli, a miloedd o Ddinafoedd a Theyrnafoedd ynddi ; a’r Eigion mawr fel Llynntro o’i chwmpas, a moroedd eraill fel afonydd yn ei gwahanu hi ’n rhanneu.  O hir graffu, gwelwn Hi yn dair Stryd fawr tros ben ;  a Phorth mawr difcleirwych ymhen ifa pob Stryd, a Thwr teg ar bob Porth, ac ar bob Tŵr yr oedd Merch landeg aruthr yn fefyll yngolwg yr holl Stryd ; a’r tri Thwr o’r tu cefn i’r Caereu ’n cyrraedd at odre ’r Caftell mawr hwnnw.  Ar ohyd i’r tair anferthol hyn, gwelwn Stryd groes arall, a honno nid oedd ond bechan a gwael wrth y lleill, ond ei bod hi ’n lanwaith, ac ar godiad uwch-law ’r Strydoedd eraill, yn mynd rhagddi uwch uwch tu a’r Dwyrein, ar tair eraill ar i wared tu ar Gogledd at y Pyrth mawr.

I saw one City of enormous magnitude, with thousands of Cities and Kingdoms within it ; and the great Ocean like a Moat around it, and other seas like rivers, dividing it into parts. From long observation, I saw that It was made up of three exceedingly great Streets ;  with a great glittering Gateway at the lower end of each Street, and a fair Tower on each Gateway, and on each Tower there was a stupendously beautiful Woman standing in sight of the whole street ; and the three Towers at the back of the Ramparts reached to the foot of that great Castle.  Of the same length as this enormous trio, I saw a dissimilar cross Street, which was but small and mean compared with the others, except it was spotless, and raised higher than the other Streets, leading up, up, away towards the East, with the other three leading downwards towards the North and the great Gateways.

This city, explains the guiding angel, is the City of Destruction; the castle belongs to Belial, who rules the whole city through deception, except for the high narrow street, which is ruled by King Immanuel. The three great streets and their alluring idols represent pride, pleasure and lucre―a parodic trinity worshiped by all inhabitants of the city except by the dwellers of the high narrow street. What follows is a closer inspection of these streets and their inhabitants, with a great deal of social and religious satire. The pope, of course, being proud, sensual and avaricious in equal measure, has a court in each of the main thoroughfares. There’s a cartoonish portrait of a priest who congratulates a woman for killing her Anglican daughter, and then demands that another woman sleep with him as penance for the crime of killing her illegitimate child.  The Catholic church is seen to depend on tricks and ruses such as moving a suspended image of St. Peter on hidden wires, and placing crabs under a carpet to simulate the sound of the souls of the dead. Secular vices are embodied by such figures as a rich young lady who vainly tries to woo even richer men; a fat alderman who insists on being addressed by his numerous titles; a falsely humble nobleman seeking political office; and an onstentatiously weeping widow whose interest is only in the dead man’s property. All levels of society fall under Wynne’s disapproving gaze, but he reserves his most biting invective for sinners of high status: rulers, noblemen, politicians, lawyers. He includes a couple of fine scornful lists, first describing the contents of the Tower of Pride:

Pob mâth o arfeu rhyfel i orefcyn ac ymledu ;  pob mâth o arfeu bonedd banerau, fcwtfiwn, llyfreu acheu, gwerfi ’r hynafiaid, cywyddeu ;  pob mâth o wifcoedd gwychion, ftoriâu gorcheftol, drychau ffeilfion ; pob lliwieu a dyfroedd i deccâu ’r wynebpryd ;  pob uchel-fwyddau a thitlau :  ac ar fyrr iti, mae yno bob peth a bair i ddyn dybio ’n well o honno ’i hun, ac yn waeth o eraill nac y dylei. Prif Swyddogion y Tryfordy hwn ye Meiftred y Ceremoniau, Herwyr, Achwyr, Beirdd, Areithwyr, Gwenieithwyr, Dawnfwyr, Taelwriaid Pelwyr, Gwniadyddefau a’r cyffelyb.

All kinds of arms of war for conquest and expansion ;  all kinds of arms of heraldry, banners, escutcheons, books of genealogy, sayings of the ancients, poems ;  all kinds of gorgeous garments, boastful tales, flattering mirrors ; every pigment and lotion to beautify the face ;  every high office and title :  to be short, everything is there which makes a man think better of himself and worse of others than he ought. The Chief Officers of this Treasury are Masters of the Ceremonies, Outlaws, Genealogists, Bards, Orators, Flatterers, Dancers, Tailors, Gamblers, Seamstresses and the like.

More comprehensive is the angel’s list of people to be seen in the Street of Lucre:

Yn y pen ifa, cei weled y Pâp etto, Gorefcynnwyr Teyrnafoedd a’i Sawdwyr, Gorthrymwyr Fforeftwyr, Cauwyr y Drosfa gyffredin, Uftufiaid a’u Breibwyr, a’u holl Sîl o’r cyfarthwyr hyd at y ceisbwl :  O’r tu arall, ebr ef, mae ’r Phyfygwyr, Potercariaid, Meddygon ;  Cybyddion, Marfiandwyr, Ceibddeilwyr Llogwyr ;  Attalwyr degymeu, neu gyflogeu, neu renti, neu lufenau a adawfid at Yfcolion, Lufendai a’r cyfryw :  Porthmyn, Maelwyr a fydd yn cadw ac yn codi’r Farchnad at eu llaw eu hunain :  Siopwyr ( neu Siarpwyr ) a elwant ar angen, neu anwybodaeth y prynwr, Stiwardiaid bob gradd, Clipwyr, Tafarnwyr fy’n yfpeilio Teuluoedd yr oferwyr o’u , a’r Wlâd o’i Haidd at fara i’r tlodion.  Hyn oll o Garn-lladron, ebr ef ;  a mân-ladron yw ’r lleill, gan mwya fy ymhen ucha ’r Stryd, fef Yfpeilwyr-ffyrdd, Taelwriaid, Gwehyddion, Melinyddion, Mefurwyr gwlŷb a sŷch a’r cyffelyb.

In the lower end, you can see the Pope once more, Conquerors of Kingdoms and their Soldiers, Oppressors, Foresters, Closers of common Lands, Justices and their Bribers, and their whole Spawn from the Barristers to the Catchpole :  On the other side, he said, are the Physicians, Apothecaries, Doctors ;  Misers, Merchants, Extortioners, Money-lenders ;  With-holders of tithes, or wages, or rents or doles left to Schools, Almshouses and the like :  Drovers, Dealers who manipulate the Market for their own ends :  Shopmen ( or rather, Sharpers ) who profit on the need, or ignorance, of the buyer, Stewards of all grades, Clippers, Innkeepers who despoil the Families of idlers of their goods, and the Country of its Barley, designated for bread for the poor.  All these are Notorious Thieves, he said ;  and the others are petty thieves, who for the most part are in the upper end of the street, such as Road-despoilers, Tailors, Weavers, Millers, Grocers and the like.

So that’s just about everyone, then. Only the very righteous and determined are able to make the trek up to the high narrow street and enter through its low gate, there to enjoy sober, modest, innocent, compassionate and peaceful contentment, broken only when they have to defend the City of Immanuel from one of Belial’s periodic attacks. It is the commotion of one of these attacks that causes the dreamer to wake up, to his disappointment, distraught to be once more confined to the limitations of the physical world. A piece of doggerel concerning the dire effects of sin and the church’s promise of redemption rounds off this section.***

The second part of the book is the shortest. It opens with the narrator at home in bed, having just engaged a now-departed neighbour in a fireside chat about the brevity of life and inevitability of death. As he drifts into sleep, Sleep himself appears to him, together with Nightmare (who doesn’t stick around, although the vision that follows is pretty nightmarish); where should he take the dreamer but back to the City of Destruction? Only this time, they arrive at the other side of one of the gateways, all three of which lead to another gateway at the back. This rear gateway was several doors, one for each manner of death appropriate to different sinners (hunger for misers, cold for scholars, fear for murderers, etc. ); the doors are attended by squabbling imps, who attempt to grab the terrified sinners and haul them through their own door into the land of Death. This, of course, is the entrance by which all inhabitants of the City who shunned the high narrow street are taken into Death’s realm. The dreamer himself does not enter through any of these doors, but finds himself awake on the other side after being made to fall asleep by his guide (that is, he sleeps in the midst of his dream). The description of the ghastly scene allows Wynne to really go to town with horrific imagery:

[…] mi’m gwelwn mewn Dyffryn pygddu anfeidrol o gwmpas ac i’m tŷb i nid oedd diben arno :  ac ymhen ennyd wrth ymbell oleuni glâs fel canwyll ar ddiffodd, mi welyn aneirif oh! aneirif o gyfcodion Dynion, rhai ar draed, a rhai ar feirch yn gwau trwy eu gilydd fel y gwynt, yn ddiftaw ac yn ddifrifol aruthr.  A gwlâd ddiffrwyth lom adwythig, neb na gwêllt na gwair, na choed nac anifail, oddieithr gwylltfilod marwol a phryfed gwenwynig o bôb mâth ;  feirph, nadroedd, llau, llyffaint, llyngyr, locuftiaid, prŷ ’r bendro, a’r cyffelyb oll fy ’n byw ar lyfredigaeth Dyn.  Trwy fyrddiwn o gyfcodion ac ymlufciaid, a beddi, a Monwentau, a Beddrodau, ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr ;  tan na welwn i rai ’n troi ac yn edrych arnai ;  a chwippyn er maint oedd yn ddiftawrwydd o’r blaen, dyma fi o’r naill i’r llall fod yno Ddyn bydol ;  Dyn bydol, ebr un, Dyn bydol, eb y llall !   tan ymdyrru attai fel y lindys o bob cwrr.

I saw that I was in a pitch-black Valley of infinite radius and it seemed to me that there was no end to it :  and in a moment, by a few bluish lights like new-extinguished candles, I saw countless oh! countless shades of Men, some on foot, and some on horses, rushing back and fro like the wind, awesomely silent and solemn.  And a barren, bleak, malignant land, with neither grass nor hay, nor tree nor animal, save deadly beasts and poisonous vermin of every kind ;  serpents, adders, lice, frogs, worms, locusts, earwigs, and all the like sort that live on Man’s corruption.  Through myriad shades and reptiles, and graves, and Cemeteries, and Tombs, we went ahead to see the Land unhindered ;  until I happened to see some turning round and looking at me ;  in an instant, notwithstanding the prevailing silence, a whisper passed from one to another that there was a Man from Earth there ;  A Man from Earth, cried one, A Man from Earth, cried another !  while they crowded round me like caterpillars from every quarter.

Readers who don’t understand Welsh will perhaps be able only to dimly appreciate the beauty of Wynne’s sound patterning in the passage above, but his fondness for alliteration ought to be apparent (e.g. ni aethom ymlaen i weled y Wlâd yn ddirwyftr, which might be crudely approximated as nee eye-thom um-line ee well-led er w[oo]lard un thee-rooeest-rr). Quite as direful is the picture of King Death’s court:

[…] â phenglogeu Dynion y gwnelfid y murieu, a rheini ’n ’fcyrnygu dannedd yn erchyll ;  du oedd y clai wedi ei gyweirio trwy ddagreu a chwŷs, a’r calch oddi allan yn frith o phlêm a chrawn, ac oddifewn o waed dugoch.  Ar ben pôb twr, gwelit Angeu bach â chanddo galon dwymn ar flaen ei faeth.  O amgylch y Llŷs ’r oedd rhai coed, ymbell Ywen wenwynig, a Cypres-wydden farwol, ac yn rheini ’roedd yn nythu dylluanod, Cigfrain ac Adar y Cyrph a’r cyfryw, yn creu am Gig fŷth, er nad oedd y fangre oll ond un Gigfa fawr ddrewedig.  O efcyrn morddwydydd Dynion y gwnelfid holl bilereu ’r Neuadd, a Philereu ’r Parlwr o efcyrn y coefeu, a’r llorieu ’n un walfa o bôb cigyddiaeth.

[…] its walls were made of the skulls of Men, which displayed their teeth hideously ;  the clay was black and mingled with tears and sweat, and the lime outside riddled with phlegm and pus, and inside with black-red blood.  On the summit of each tower was seen a Deathling with a quivering heart at the head of his arrow.  Around the Court were a few trees―the odd poisionous Yew, or deadly Cypress, and in these nested owls, Ravens and Vultures and the like, crying without end for Flesh, even though the whole place was but one great putrid Slaughterhouse.  All the Hall’s pillars were made of the thighbones of Men, and the Parlour’s Pillars of shinbones, and the floors a layer of all manner of Butchery.

That lime is particularly horrible―so horrible, in fact, that Gwyneddon Davies couldn’t bring himself to include the phlegm and pus; ‘ruddy with gore’ is the most he can manage (Borrow has no such scruple). Weirdly, Gwyneddon Davies also translates ‘Adar y Cyrph’ (literally, corpse-birds) as vampires, rather than vultures, a blunder Borrow doesn’t make; it would seem that the later, less racy translator doesn’t always come off best as far as accuracy is concerned.

The third and final vision, which is the longest of the three, sees the dreamer being conducted on a tour of hell, which is reached via a vast chasm in the realm of the dead. A great deal of this section consists of the various torments suffered by the damned, described with conspicuous relish and some bitter humour. Drovers, for example, are given the faces of sheep and cows, and are driven like animals; apothecaries are ground up and stuffed into pots with animal fæces; an innkeeper who had served bad beer is boiled; women obsessed with beauty perpetually apply cosmetics which turn them ever more painfully hideous. As in the first section, all levels of society are scourged, but it is the agonies and humiliations of the powerful, with their arrogant certainty that the social status they had enjoyed in life will protect them, that are most gleefully depicted. Muslims, Puritans and Catholics are also excoriated; the Anglican church is, of course, the one true religion. One the most striking and, to me, alienating aspects of Wynne’s satire is the absence of any hint of mercy or compassion. This should not be surprising, as to feel any pity for the damned would be to risk questioning God’s judgement. When some of the condemned souls beg for mercy, a devil answers them that God has already shown humanity more than enough mercy, and that it should not be granted to those who do not deserve it.

There is no little sadism to be found in this hard-heartedness; this is exemplified by a scene in which the dreamer is almost overwhelmed by the ghastly sounds and sights of Hell, his angelic guide gives him a fortifying drink just to that he is ready to face even greater horrors. Vigorous as Wynne’s prose is (I doff my hat to two fantastic instances of onomatopoeia: ‘hai, hai, hai-ptrw-how, ho, ho-o-o-o-hwp’ and ‘drwp-hwl-rwp-rap dy-dwmp dy-damp’), I can’t deny a certain tedium creeping in. He carps on and on about various sins great and small, delighting at length the punishment of those who commit them, and then indulges himself in long gloating speeches given by the chief devils about the extent of their misdeeds and depth of their evil. It’s all too wearisomely repetitive, and the disdainful moralizing is never entrirely free of that obnoxious narrowness of mind one associates with religion at its most crabbed and petty, its most inhuman. Wynne’s sectarian satire remined me in some ways of Swift’s Tale of a Tub, which was published a year after the Visions (though it was written earlier). The comparison shows up Wynne’s limitations. Like Wynne, Swift (or at least his narrator) also holds up the Anglican church as a more rational, moderate alternative to the supposed extremes of Catholicism and Puritanism, and also employs a caustic wit deemed profane and vulgar by primmer readers. But Swift is altogether more ambiguous, diverse and unsettling; he is too fascinatingly idiosyncratic to succumb to monotony. Wynne doesn’t quite have that idiosyncrasy, and so my reaction to his hectoring is simply to reject it, though the drearier passages are not so frequent nor so long that they overcame the enjoyment I derived from reading the good parts. A mixed bag, then, but with much to savor. If you want to try a translation, I can’t say that I’d recommend Gwyneddon Davies, which amplifies Wynne’s flaws and reduces his virtues. Borrow is probably a better bet, inaccuracies be damned.

*I have also sought to adhere more closely to the author’s use of punctuation, italics and capitalizations.

**Wynne might have intended more sections. At the beginning and at the end of the book, it is stated that the pages in between are the first part, but there is no evidence of a second part having been written.

***The poem that ends the second section is more doggerel, this time about the inevitability of death. The last poem, on a similar theme, is far smoother and more musical; it seems to have been written with an existing tune in mind.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968, Ayi Kwei Armah)

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a filthy book. Dirt, decay, grime and ordure are everywhere, detailed in prose of rhapsodic disgust. The streets, the rivers, the showers, the latrines: these are the symptoms of an ungovernably reeking and befouled chaos, a social and political putrefaction afflicting Ghana just before the fall of Nkrumah, the country’s first post-independence leader (the novel was published two years after his overthrow). An expensive new bin is soon almost submerged under a pile of refuse (‘banana peels and mango seeds and thoroughly sucked-out oranges and the chaff of sugarcane and most of all the thick brown wrapping from a hundred balls of kenkey’); windows acquire ‘an oily yellow shine which [hides] their underlying color’; water stagnates ‘in puddles whose scum [is] visible even in the dark’. Filth is everywhere spreading, accreting, encrusting, building up, flowing, pooling, circulating, engulfing. There’s a terrific passage about a stair banister with an ‘uncomfortably organic’ touch to it:

A weak bulb hung over the whole staircase suspended on some thin, invisible thread. By its light it was barely possible to see the banister, and the sight was like that of a very long piece of diseased skin. The banister had originally been a wooden one, and to this time it was still possible to see, in the deepest of the cracks between the swellings of other matter, a dubious piece of deeply aged brown wood. And there were many cracks, though most of them did not reach all the way down to the wood underneath. They were no longer sharp, the cracks, but all rounded out and smoothed, consumed by some soft, gentle process of decay. In places the wood only seemed to have been painted over, but that must have been long ago indeed. For a long time only polish, different kinds of wood and floor polish, had been used. It would be impossible to calculate how much polish on how many rags the wood on the stair banister had seen, but there was certainly enough Ronuk and Mansion splashed there to give the place its now indelible reek of putrid turpentine. What had been going on there and was going on now and would go on and on through all the years ahead was a species of war carried on in the silence of long ages, a struggle in which only the keen, uncanny eyes and ears of lunatic seers could detect the deceiving, easy breathing of the strugglers.

The struggle is doomed to failure.

But of course in the end it was the rot which imprisoned everything in its effortless embrace. It did not really have to fight. Being was enough. In the natural course of things it would always take the newness of the different kinds of polish and the vaunted cleansing of the chemicals in them, and it would convert all to victorious filth, awaiting yet more polish again and again and again.

Contrasted with all this dirt, and yet at the same time bound up with it, are ideas and images of cleanliness, order, brightness and purity. One of the novel’s governing images is the Atlantic-Caprice Hotel, a big, gleaming white monstrosity that towers over the surrounding buildings, its gleam at once seductive and repellent. It is heavily symbolic, of course: the allure of money, of power, status, luxury. It proclaims the dominant position of the country’s post-independence elite, which pathetically apes the tastes, lifestyles, even names, of its former colonial masters. Throughout the book, the dazzling, the shiny, the spotless, the white, are associated with the corrupt values and practices of this elite, which is but an extension of the (white-skinned) ancien régime. An old man remembers, in the days of British rule, ‘the white mean’s gleaming bungalows’, which have since become occupied by their black successors, who also now drive gleaming cars with blinding white lights. The home of one of these big men is filled with glinting objects: ashtrays, pistol-shaped lighters, silver boxes, marble table tops, polished dishes and glasses, and so on. Even his dressing gown is shiny. As much as this elite strives to distance itself from the unclean masses it rules over, however, it cannot extricate itself entirely, for there will always be an unpleasant but unavoidable and even necessary proximity; the boundaries are moreover not secure. Armah provides a fittingly scatological image of this in a government office’s latrine wall, the upper part of which is a ‘dazzling white’, with no obscuring cobwebs, while the lower part is streaked with shit; the white area looks set to diminish over time, as people have resorted to jumping up in order to make use of a clean spot. The expensive new bin, now all but hidden under the rubbish, is topped by a sign which once was bright, ‘gleaming’ and ‘lucent’, but which is now stained and unreadable. It is a kind of a revenge against the elite, for the elite enriches itself by stealing money supposedly meant for the poor; the masses and the dirt in which they dwell are thus the substrate upon which the existence of the elite depends. But while the substrate may threaten to overwhelm that which it sustains, there are new elites waiting to take the place of the vanquished one.

The book opposes and conjoins clean and dirty with an almost suffocating intensity, so that after finishing it, I felt as if I was coming up for air. Such an obsessive focus packs a real punch, but the author falters in his failure to create a convincing protagonist. Armah gives us a hero or anti-hero in the character of a nameless railway controller, referred throughout the book as ‘the man’. If his anonymity is meant to suggest an everyman, then he’s a very strange kind of everyman. For one thing, he is profoundly alienated from his society, which is shown to be shallow, venal, conformist, amoral and rotten; his poorly paid job offers opportunities to advance himself through dishonest means, but he refuses them all, earning the contempt of his fellows and the resentment of his wife and mother-in-law. A real everyman would not, in such circumstances, refrain from giving or taking a bribe or two, or at least be seriously tempted; here, the man certainly desires material comforts, mainly for the sake of his family, but his uncompromising rectitude is never in doubt. Such scrupulousness marks him as an exceptional figure, yet his character is vague, unknowable; not only is he denied a name, but physical and psychological detail are also largely withheld. Armah is good on the feelings of guilt, frustration and estrangement that beset the man as a result of his principled stand, which condemns his family to remain in soul-sapping poverty, but these feelings never seem the products of an individual psychology. Detailed psychological realism is not a requirement of a novel, of course, and plenty do very well without it, but the trouble here is that the protagonist does little more than drift through the story feeling sorry for himself; he can’t even explain or justify his scruples. Fair enough as a condemnation of ineffective intellectuals who mope and grouch in the face of oppression and exploitation but cannot rouse themselves to act, or even to think about their situation with any clarity, but Armah stacks things so heavily against the man, and sees so little hope for meaningful change, that he makes personal virtue co-existing with despairing resignation seem like a pretty reasonable choice. The few other characters who shun the pervasive corruption are either dead or have cut themselves off from society, and are thus even less likely to help bring about social change. The man’s ethical stance, poorly though he understands it, is shown to be so unusual that it assumes a stature that undermines any criticism of his inaction. He is a figure full of contradictions―at once universal, extraordinary, unremarkable, heroic, passive and amorphous―but, unfortunately, Armah doesn’t know what to do with all these contradictions, and so they do not sustain much interest.

Far more compelling is the man’s wife, who is not only given a name―Oyo―but is also a more vivid, complex character, her outlines sharp while those of her husband are fuzzy. Being a wife and mother fully occupied with her domestic role, she is not faced directly, as her husband is, with having to choose between a state of honest privation and advancement through corruption; she can only live with the consequences of her husband’s attitude. The women in this book are excluded from the kinds of job that offer the possibility of advancement, and so dirty money only comes to their hands via their husbands, if it comes at all. Oyo and her mother are excited about a business opportunity, but their scheme is dependent on the assistance of a powerful man. Oyo’s resentment comes from bearing the brunt of her husband’s principles; it is she who, as a result of these principles, must run the household and bring up the children with next to no money. For her, there is no escape from the misery of home, as there is for him; there is no retreating to an office sanctuary. I suspect Armah might have done better to have made Oyo the central character. It is she who provides another of the book’s key images (along with the gleaming Atlantic-Caprice Hotel), when she mordantly compares her husband to the chichidodo, a fictional bird that hates excrement but eats only maggots, which are most plentiful in lavatories.

So then, back to shit, from which might emerge something as odious as a maggot, or as beautiful as a flower. The protagonist’s mentor, whom he addresses as Teacher, remarks that ‘out of the decay and the dung there is always a new flowering,’ yet he is a character wholly given over to pessimism and inaction. For him, hopeful thoughts are little more than bromides, which might ‘soothe the brain’, but cannot assuage ‘the ache and the sinking fear’ lodged in the heart and guts. For him, the maggots far outnumber the flowers. Of Nkrumah’s own decline from idealistic young anti-colonial activist to corrupt leader cut off from the struggles of his countrymen, the teacher asks how something could ‘have grown rotten with such obscene haste?’ Obscene, yes, but also quite natural and ordinary: the allure of shiny things, which ‘pull the tired body toward rest and decay.’ Here we have the source of all filth: the symbiotic, all-contaminating relationship between what is decaying, dirty, degraded and what is gleaming, hygienic, pure―a relationship of money and faeces endlessly generating more filth. The more people strive for the gleam of the Atlantic-Caprice, the more shit gets produced. A brilliant image: the stench of the public lavatory and the taste of rot forcing people to spit, a ‘doomed attempt to purify the self by adding to the disease outside.’ The cycle of birth, consumption, excretion, growth, decay, decomposition and rebirth serves as a cosmic backdrop to the story, a cycle from which there is no apparent escape. The only hope lies in a new kind of rebirth, freed from the influence of capitalism and the colonial legacy, but it seems a distant, desperate hope; the book’s very title defers its realization to an unspecified future. The ending, which involves a literal journey through shit and cleansing in the ocean, might point to the possibility of this rebirth, but the remoteness of this possibility weighs over the whole of this powerful, depressing book.

Ferdydurke (1937, Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Danuta Borchardt)

For several years, I have had a reoccurring nightmare, which begins with my waking up in my parents’ home and getting ready for school. In the dream, I am an adult, and there is nothing extraordinary about my attending secondary school; it is merely a tiresome inconvenience. I am not obliged to wear the uniform or to attend many lessons; I am there only because I have been informed that there is one more round of exams I have to take. Sometimes I am the only one taking these exams; sometimes I am joined by a few of my old schoolmates, appearing in adult guise (though it’s been years since I’ve seen many of them in the flesh, so I can only imagine what they look like now); sometimes they appear as their teenaged selves, while I alone am fully-grown; sometimes they alternate between adolescence and adulthood; at other times, their form is vague and indistinct, or their presence is felt but not visualized. The teachers who appear vary from one dream to the next, but they always take the form of people who actually taught me all those years ago. They are always clearly visualized, and always look and act just as they did when I was their student, even though their real-life counterparts are all retired or (as in a few cases) dead. They display no surprise on encountering me again in the classroom, greeting me either with wry commiseration (the teachers who liked me) or cold hostility (the ones who didn’t). For most of the dream, there is an air of absolute normality: unpleasant, but no more so than the daily grind of waking life. The tone always changes, however, when I encounter younger pupils: bratty little eleven- and twelve-year-olds, who, in huge, threatening numbers, encircle me and ruthlessly taunt me, mocking my incongruous adult presence and odious maturity. I am always the sole victim of these taunts, for if, in the dream, I have returning peers, they are unmolested, and do no more than sadly shake their heads and walk away as I am abused. The abuse has the effect of transforming me, for I sense that my body is no longer that of an adult, but that of an eleven- or twelve-year-old, though I am aware that my mind has not regressed. By the time the nightmare ends, or imperceptibly becomes something else, I have been condemned to the hellish fate of repeating my school years (which, I should state, were not unhappy), my consciousness as a man in his late twenties or early thirties trapped in the body of my younger self, excruciatingly aware that everything I am being now taught is something I’ve already learned, that I have sat through this very same lesson, that I have heard the teacher utter these very same words, that I know it all already, or most of it, but this fact does not excuse me, for I must do it all again, and again, and again, with no end in sight.

I thought of this dream as I read Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (the title is a nonsense word), a bizarre, obsessive plunge into puerility, which sees the thirty-year-old narrator, Kowalski, transformed by a jovially condescending teacher, Professor Pimko, into an adolescent. This is how the transformation is described:

I strained to get up, but just at that moment he looked at me indulgently from under his spectacles, and suddenly―I became small, my leg became a little leg, my hand a little hand, my persona a little persona, my being a little being, my oeuvre a little oeuvre, my body a little body, while he grew larger and larger, sitting and glancing at me, and reading my manuscript forever and ever amen―he sat.

It’s not made clear how Pimko brings about the transformation, or whether there’s any physical alteration. The air of unreality that hangs over the book prevents the reader from assuming that Kowalski literally becomes small. Just prior to Pimko’s appearance Kowalski has an uncanny, dream-like encounter with his own ghostly double, which vanishes after he strikes its face. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of the novel, the narrator’s misadventures having always an unreal, dream-like (or nightmarish) quality to them, embracing the grotesque and illogical, and with little use for explanation and motivation. Pimko gives no satisfactory reason for his visit, nor is he ever asked to give one; he simply shows up uninvited. Nor do we know the nature of his relationship with the narrator; we might assume that they were formerly teacher and pupil, but that much is never stated. Once the professor has Kowlaski in his power, he leads him to a school and enrols him there. Thereafter, Kowalski’s desire to escape the tangled thicket of ineluctable immaturity is thwarted at every turn by paralysis; no-one perceives him as anything other than a mere boy, and the more he tries to insist upon his maturity, the more naïve and immature he appears.

The story comprises three distinct movements. The first takes place in the school, where dreary teachers bore their students with rubbish like ‘Great poetry must be admired, because it is great and because it is poetry, and so we admire it’. The second movement finds Kowalski lodging with a liberal bourgeois family composed of an engineer, his activist wife and their achingly modern teenaged daughter. The third includes some sharp social satire (despite Gombrowicz’s stated disavowal of any political intent) as the narrator stays with some aristocratic country relatives. It is in this section that Danuta Borchardt’s translation runs into some problems. In her prefatory note, she writes that although she is most comfortable with British English, she decided to use American English because it is less formal. Maybe, but British English doesn’t have to be formal, and it would have been much better suited to registering the differences between the language employed by Kowalski’s upper-crust relatives and that employed by their servants. The Britain of the 1930s, with its class system, provides a much closer equivalent to the Polish society of Gombrowicz’s time than does its American counterpart. Apart from the theoretical justification behind Borchardt’s decision, in practice it leads to some unhappy results, with ‘peasant’ dialogue that is not recognizable as either British or American, but some strange mixture of the two (sample: “Yer lo’dship! Yer lo’dships, damn it! They won’t let oop! They’re curs! O Jesus! They’re twistin’ ya round too!”). It is possible that Gombrowicz’s Polish is equally odd at such points, and that the translator is simply trying to reflect this, but an explanation would have been helpful if this is the case. However, this is a quibble; in general Borchardt’s translation is a joy to read.

Kowalski’s situation may seem freakish and arbitrary, but it is not entirely so. At the beginning of the book, before he is transformed, he is already dreaming of himself as a sixteen-year-old, and then, in a half-dreaming state, before fully awakening, he worries that his body parts have become confused, and that some of them belong to his juvenile self. As a man of thirty, his status as a mature adult ought to be secure, but instead his friends and relatives plague him with their concerns about his inexperience and lack of direction. He is a published author, but finds that rather than earning him respect and prestige, as he had intended, this has only exacerbated his problems―but then, what did he expect of a book entitled Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity?* The manuscript that Pimko reads to Kowalski’s discomfort is intended to be his magnum opus, the fullest artistic expression and sum total of himself, an act of self-assertion written in reaction to his horrifying vision of his own double, which had upset his sense of self. Kowalski’s ordeals may not quite be a logical development of his inquietude, but neither are they unconnected with it. Gombrowicz is toying with and poking at the anxiety that, I suppose, everyone must feel at some points in their adult life (not indefinitely, I would imagine): the doubts one feels about one’s maturity, the nagging questions over whether one has truly grown up, whether one has left behind childhood and adolescence, and is fully prepared to meet the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps even those old enough for youth to seem hazily distant do not entirely shake off these uncertainties, which perhaps mutate into something else (for example, amazement at the gulf of years between one’s youth and one’s senescence, questions of what one retains within). Being of the same age as Gombrowicz was at the time of Ferdydurke’s publication, I am ill qualified to pursue this enquiry.

ferdy

The agitated psychology of Ferdydurke is accompanied by a disordered physicality, both mental self and bodily self being prone to breaking down, becoming distorted and unfamiliar. Gombrowicz’s contemporary, the writer Bruno Schulz, provided the first edition with an apt illustration depicting heads and limbs emerging from a tree (see above), which conveys something of the confusion of body parts one finds in the text. As Kowalski lies dreaming of his 16-year-old self, the following sensations come upon him:

Further: as I lay awake but still half dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose―and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.

Perhaps even David Cronenberg would balk at attempting to realize such horrifying corporeal violence and chaos. The confusion of body parts doesn’t just occur within one individual; twice in the text, multiple characters end up in a brawling heap, all individuality erased, indistinguishable from one another as they fight. So there are twin terrors at play here: there terror of disintegration, of wholes breaking down into parts, and the terror of integration, of wholes being reduced to parts, subsumed into larger wholes. The tortuous relationship between whole and part is amusingly explored in an interlude concerning two academic antagonists, one of them a high-minded Synthethist, the other a disreputable Analyst, who is able to ‘fillip a nose and thus activate it into a life of its own’. When the Synthesist attempts to attack his enemy, the reply he receives is both funny and rather chilling:

“You heap of things!” replied the Analyst with a dreadful, analytical disdain. “I too am a heap. If you wish―kick me in the abdomen. You won’t be kicking me in the abdomen, you’ll be kicking my abdomen―nothing more. You wanted to attack my cheeks by slapping them, didn’t you? You can attack my cheek but not me. There is no me. No me at all. No me!”

This interlude, entitled ‘The Child Runs Deep in Filidor’, is itself a part that has become subsumed into a larger work, being originally a story included in Gombrowicz’s previous book Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity. Here, it appears with its own preface; later in the book, another formerly separate story appears (‘The Child Runs Deep in Filibert’), again, with its own preface.

Three body parts in particular feature prominently in Ferdydurke: the buttocks, or pupa;** the face, translated here as ‘the mug’; and legs, especially calves. It’s the legs that I found most striking, the narrator displaying something of an obsession with them. Most hilariously, ‘after a moment’s profound reflection’ (ha ha), the narrator translates a parodic modernist love poem into ‘comprehensible language’:

                                 The Poem

                Horizons burst like flasks

                a green blotch swells high in the clouds

                I move back to the shadow of the pine―

                and there:

                with greedy gulps I drink

                                                 my diurnal springtime

                                      My Translation

                Calves of legs, calves, calves

                Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves

                Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves―

                The calf of my leg:

                the calf of my leg, calf, calf,

                                                          calves, calves, calves.

This will give you, I hope, an idea of Gombrowicz’s sense of humor; Ferdydurke is frequently a laugh-out-loud book, though the laughter always has a hint of mania about it. The really disconcerting thing is the feeling, never far beneath the surface, that mockery has you in its sights, which is made explicit by the closing lines:

                 It’s the end, what a gas,

                 And who’s read it is an ass!

*There is some degree of identification of the narrator with Gombrowicz himself. The latter was just over thirty at the time of the novel’s publication, having made his literary debut a collection of short stories with same title as Kowalski’s first book; to what extent the reader understands Kowalski to be a stand-in for the author is not a matter of great interest to me.

**The range of special nuances of this Polish word are apparently difficult to convey in English, and so Borchardt leaves it untranslated.

Haunch Paunch and Jowl (1923, Samuel Ornitz)

This is a rather obscure book by a rather obscure author. The few people to whom the name Samuel Ornitz might mean anything are more likely to recognize him as a screenwriter than as a novelist, and his film career was not particularly illustrious (he’s best known for being one of the Hollywood Ten). A few scholars of Jewish-American fiction might have heard of him―perhaps even have read him―but despite being reprinted in the 80s, the book under review here (his debut) can hardly be said to have secured its author’s lasting fame. Yet Haunch Paunch and Jowl* was a big commercial success in its day. Its mention in the Wikipedia entry on Ornitz caught my attention (‘[it] contains an early use of stream-of-consciousness writing in American fiction’); when I saw, at the bottom of the page, that the whole text was available to read online for free, I decided that it was worth at least a brief investigation, and that brief investigation of the first page nudged me into reading the whole thing properly.

The narrator is Meyer Hirsch, a successful New York judge, who looks back at his rise from childhood poverty to wealth and status. It soon becomes clear that the behavior he displays as a boy (devious, selfish, motivated by ruthless ambition) sets the pattern for his adult career, and that the success enjoyed by the middle-aged Meyer has been achieved through dubious means. Apart from a few instances of flash-forwards, the narrative is mostly linear, though episodic and jumpy, with a very vague timeline; no dates are given, though one would suppose that the story opens in the late 19th century. At the start, Meyer is a young boy living in a tiny apartment with his mother, father and uncle. The men spend most of their day slaving at their meagrely-paid jobs, while the mother is scarcely less harried by the demands of simply sustaining an existence. The three Yiddish-speaking adults are émigrés from Russia, driven from their homeland by pogroms; the rich German Jews who are their new employers and exploiters look down on families such as the Hirsches as belonging to an uncivilized peasant culture. He is given the nickname of ziegelle, or little goat, which was bestowed upon him affectionately by his mother, but is resented by Meyer due to the teasing to which he is subjected by his peers. It turns out that the term of endearment was not an arbitrary choice, for Meyer learns to his dismay that when he was born during the family’s passage to America, he was indeed suckled by a goat while his mother lay sick. The young Meyer is taunted by shadows on the wall of his apartment, imagining that they are cavorting goats come to mock him; even the shadows of his mother’s beckoning arms take on this aspect. Meyer complains about his nickname to Berel the harness-maker:

“Then tell me, Berel, be so good, what’s the matter nobody likes a goat and everybody makes fun of them.”
  “First place, nothing bothers a goat and that makes people angry. A goat manages to get along where any other creature would perish. Stubble, twigs, anything is food and nourishment for him. He is a sidestepper, can walk a narrow ledge or fence, if need be. He is for himself; unfeeling, and befriends no one. An unlikable, ugly thing with a most unreasonable smell. And I have noticed that a goat is the only thing ridicule can’t kill.”

Of course, this describes the goatish disposition Meyer will display through the years, though I feel Ornitz could have done more to sustain the goat imagery in the latter parts of the book (indeed, there’s a lot of animal imagery in the early chapters, and it’s a shame that it peters out). Here, goats are contrasted with lambs―specifically with Berel’s peaceable employee Lutz, who lies severely injured after being assaulted by policemen. It is the goats who prosper, while the lambs are trodden underfoot. This, it would appear from Ornitz’s book, is the ordinary state of affairs in a capitalist society, in which success always comes at the expense of others. The young Meyer gets an early taste of the pitiless power-play success requires in his involvement with the local gang, working his way up from the very bottom:

I am in a hurry to join the Ludlow Street Gang. Just yesterday I was admitted to its glorious ranks as the fourteenth leader. I was not Leader the Fourteenth, but of the whole gang fourteenth in prowess and importance. However, I had only thirteen superiors. Being the lowest step in the ladder, I was most frequently trod upon; but it was sweet suffering, the travail of a hero. . . . **

He does not remain long in this position, his first advance coming as a result of a fight over a seating place by an outdoor fire. He makes himself useful with his ingenuity, careful never to expose himself to significant physical danger, but becoming a trusted adviser to the gang’s leader, Boolkie. The young Ludlow Streeters amuse themselves with petty crimes and brawling rivalries, many of them relishing the freedom to make mischief because it is in such exhilarating contrast to the harsh, gloomy routines of the cheder, or religious school, they are forced to attend. As Meyer states, the ‘gang was romance, adventure, had the zest of banditry, the thrill of camp life, and the lure of hero-worship’. There’s a brilliantly entertaining passage in which the boys, released from the cheder for the day, engage in a large street fight with another gang (described in comically militaristic terms: ‘a battalion of boys’, ‘a fusillade of brickbats’, ‘an unopposed charge upon the Guerrillas’ rear’, etc. ), the fight morphing into a more general riot until Meyer starts orchestrating it for his own advantage. Here darker undertones intrude, as property is destroyed (perhaps reminding the shopkeepers of the pogroms they’d fled) and protection money demanded, the young hooligans acting just as a bona fide criminal gang would (naturally, several of the young hooligans indeed go on to become bona fide criminal gangsters). Respectable pillars of the community tut-tut at all this, but when the two Jewish gangs join forces to fight Irish youths, the same pillars of the community urge them on. The same pillars of the community are also sweatshop operators and brothel owners, their conduct, beneath the veneer of respectability, being no less corrupt and inhumane than that of the gangsters. As Meyer’s legal career takes off, he contrives to keep a foot in both camps, maintaining the front of a worthy, pious Jew who regularly attends synagogue (inwardly, he despises religion) while finding that his boyhood criminal connections are of great use to him professionally. He also becomes part of the notorious Tammany Hall system that dominated Democratic politics in New York for years, posing as a champion of the working man while seeking only to benefit himself. His uncle Philip, meanwhile, becomes a convinced capitalist (“It’s a good thing,” he says, “this is a free country and I can exploit whom I like.”), rises from lowly factory worker to wealthy mogul, all the while treating his employees like dirt and manipulating union leaders for his own ends. The satirical mode is an invigorating blend of disgusted Swiftian indignation and exuberant Jonsonian revelry in chicanery and cunning. The condemnation of capitalism is total and unremitting, and yet Ornitz cannot resist having a ball with Meyer’s schemes (and those of his uncle), making them seem almost fun even if the schemer himself is far from a fun character. Ornitz depicts through his narrator’s recollections a society made sick and venal at all levels by capitalism. Business, the law, politics, gangs and religion: all operate according to the same principles, or lack of them. Appearance counts for more than reality in such a society; you may be a total fraud, crook, incompetent and hypocrite, but if you put on a good front, people will take ‘you to be the man you say you are’. A foray into the world of musical theatre is the occasion for some great comedy, but we also see the phoniness of commercial entertainment, the narrowness of its relentless pursuit of profit, the crassness of its racial stereotyping, its association with prostitution and organized crime. It is via Meyer’s activities as performer that Ornitz provides his bleakest picture of the human cost of capitalism:

Later, when tips were running high, Sam introduced us to the fifty-cent houses on Mott and Elizabeth Streets, where was beginning to develop a large Italian colony. Pimps on the street pulled at us, dragged us into doorways and cried their drawing card―“imported girlies, young―very young”; that was the attraction. And we found nothing misleading in their advertisement. The girls were young, very young, ten to fourteen years old, and imported, imported by Italian padrones, importers of livestock only: pleasure girls, boy and girl street musicians, children acrobats, crippled and deformed children for begging; and when such importations were stopped only by the horrors exposed by their own excesses, they became respectable importers of mine and railway peons. The Elizabeth Street joints were crude and dirty places, and Hymie Rubin, rather sensitive and soft-hearted, turned from them in disgust, saying he minded most the little girls’ white, bewildered faces. […] Hymie preferred the Five Points scrubs because they were cheap and did not seem to be human beings.

In contrast to Meyer’s cynicism and single-minded devotion to his own interests, Ornitz also presents a series of ‘good’ characters, who are variously compassionate, idealistic, principled, naïve. Such qualities Meyer regards with scorn, but even among the ‘dream-stupefied’ (a frequently employed term of abuse), there are some for whom he has a certain amount of respect and admiration, even he cannot understand their approaches to life. Most important is his complicated relationship with Esther, a beautiful local girl who becomes a committed socialist. Ornitz has a real gift for characterization, superbly realizing monsters like Meyer and Philip, more sympathetic figures such as his boyhood friends Avrum and Davey (who in adulthood turn, respectively, to political activism and poetry), and little cameos such as the elderly rabbi who rails against prostitution and curses much of his congregation, the brash theatrical agent with idiosyncratic pronunciation (e.g. ‘I takes pleasure in arnouncing the East Side Four, kwartet, buck an’ wing and comedy artists, introducing numberous nowelties, all bein’ under the pursonel direckshun of A. Wolff, Esquire’), and, best of all, a boozy old pianist:

Piano O’Brien’s deft signals holds [sic] us in key, time and place. He is more than an accompanist. He is our guiding genius, attending our every move with telepathic accord. And so he sits the whole night, slightly stooped, at the piano, accompanying the singers, playing a vagrant, restful interlude or joining the fiddler, cornetist and drummer in banging out the dance music of the day. And his eyes seem drowned in the eternal well of whiskey on the music rest. He appears as tireless and detached as an automaton. He is a pale-faced drunkard, as though the very blood in him has turned into high-proof spirits. . . . Drunk unceasingly for many years, yet he is never the drunken man. His repose is deathlike, but gruesome in the midst of life. His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol. He has thin lips that compress into a purple straight line. His skin, drawn taut over forehead, cheek bones and jaw bones, seems petrified. His hands, only, seem limber and living, but the hands become as part of the piano. To the world he has no personality or being or self except as the thing of the piano. So he is known as Piano O’Brien.

Some of the characters may seem like familiar types later to be often seen in Hollywood movies (although Hollywood seldom placed them in an explicitly Jewish milieu), but here they seem fresh. It is also true that, on the whole, the men are more vivid than the women, but perhaps this a result of our seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who has little time for women except as sex objects.

As I hope the passages quoted above suggest, Haunch Paunch and Jowl contains some very impressive writing, revelling in the display of its author’s keen powers of description (‘His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol’―just wonderful). Ornitz’s portrayal of life in New York’s Jewish immigrant community is marvellously fresh and detailed: the rollicking prose is peppered with tasty bits of dated slang (bushwah, spiffy, yegg, lobbygow, spieler and so on), and there’s also quite a bit of Yiddish, italicized and with translations provided in brackets. One of the book’s strengths is Meyer’s narratorial voice: shrewd, caustic, loquacious, amoral, without shame. Occasionally the expressions of a self-interested, cynical philosophy are a little too on the nose, but they are in keeping with Meyer’s blunt and unnuanced mind. A bigger criticism is that Ornitz is not consistent, for there are some passages that don’t seem as if Meyer could have been written them. For instance, a brief account of the spread of ragtime displays a deeper interest in popular art and a greater resentment towards conservative taste-makers than is characteristic of the narrator. A rhapsody on the theme of the city’s red-light districts seems more moralistic, more concerned with sin and vice than one would expect of Meyer. Ornitz’s use of stream-of-consciousness (which is what attracted me to the book) is interesting and often effective, but it is also sometimes a bit rough-and-ready. See how much work the ellipses are doing in the following passage, for example:

These are the thoughts filtering into my mind like hot ashes. . . . I am getting ready for bed. . . . It is the beginning of another summer. . . . I stand by the window . . . a young moon rides the heavens, trailing the gauziest of nebulae . . . like a bridal veil . . . a bridal veil. . . . Gretel calls me . . . is she apprehensive . . . does she sense that I am seeing a heavenly virgin bedecked in nuptial lace? . . .

The problem is that the succession of thoughts (which are, in themselves, well-written) is too neat and orderly; Meyer may mention ‘the trick of rapid incoherent thoughts flipping through [his] mind,’ but in truth a little more rapidity and incoherence would not have gone amiss at times. Elsewhere, Ornitz achieves this brilliantly:

The wind screeched in my ears . . . you thought you would forget . . . but you will never forget Esther . . . her eyes . . . her hands . . . her quick smile . . . and her voice . . . you will never forget. . . . Everything is rushing on, swiftly. The wind is sweeping the world away from me. . . . I am left alone clinging to the granite block . . . the trees rush past, the houses swoop away, the river rages on its flight from me; below me I feel a rumble; now comes a gaseous snort . . . a freight-train flees after the wind-borne trees, houses, river, and swirling roads. . . . The wine of her lips―one kiss . . . limbs quivering beneath silk . . . a whisper . . . dust off the electric chair . . . charred potatoes but sweet . . . a whisper . . . hands tingling under my hot lips. . . .

It’s strange to think that a book containing passages such as this could have been a bestseller back in 1923, and stranger still that it could have fallen into oblivion. One possible reason for its current neglect could be that there’s something a little odd and tangled about its attitude to immigration, assimilation and the place of Jews in America Jewish. Ornitz is hard on Meyer, who wears a Good Jew mask for his own self-serving ends, but he is scarcely sympathetic to the old traditions Meyer pretends to honor. On the one hand we have a character such as Dr. Lionel Crane (Lazarus Cohen), who pontificates on ‘The Jewish Question’, espouses assimilationist views, downplays anti-Semitism, and is clearly something a quack. On the other hand, when leftist union man Avrum suggests that the pogroms in Russia are to be blamed in part on the behavior of Jewish traders and money-lenders, he is vilified, and Ornitz clearly has some sympathy with his sense of being misunderstood and unfairly attacked, even if it’s not clear that Ornitz endorses Avrum’s views. Berel Lotvin the harness-maker is revealed towards the end to have attained a successful and contented existence as a tire-dealer under the name of Bernard Lowe, having turned from Judaism to Christian Science; he is apparently rewarded for renouncing his Old World Jewish name, religion and profession in favor of modern American ones. He claims that even his diabetes―thought of as a typically Jewish complaint―has been cured following his conversion. His sons, however, have started to attend synagogue, though it may be simply in order to woo two young women in the congregation. So Ornitz’s viewpoint is hard to determine. It is striking how little anti-Semitism features in the novel, the only clear example being the conflict between the Irish and Jewish youth gangs. What we don’t see is anti-Semitism being an obstacle or source of oppression; there is plenty of bigotry between Jews (mainly in the form of German Jews looking down on Russian Jews), but little bigotry towards Jews on the part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. This omission renders Ornitz’s panorama incomplete, racial prejudice being a key component of the dehumanizing capitalist system he excoriates. Despite this flaw, the book is certainly strong enough to warrant a further reprint, and it is to be hoped that a publisher such as the New York Review of Books or The Dalkey Archive seeks to return it to the limelight.

* The odd title refers to a nickname the protagonist endures as his girth expands in step with his rising public profile.
** You can see here how Ornitz destabilizes the temporal viewpoint of his narrator. The first sentence is in the simple present (the tense most frequently employed in the novel’s early parts); the next marks a shift to the simple past (which, later on in the book, comes more the fore). Except that ‘I am in a hurry’ and ‘Just yesterday’ belong to the same moment: Meyer running to meet his fellow gang members having been admitted by them the day before. It is a moment in Meyer’s past, but he narrates it as if it were happening right now. When he talks of being ‘frequently trod upon’, there is another shift in temporal viewpoint, because this can only refer to a series of occurrences happening over period of time after the second day of his gang membership, and so, from the perspective of the ‘present’ of Meyer hurrying to join his confrères, refers to Meyer’s future, even as he really looking back on the past.