Monday, October 3, 2011
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE AMALGAMATION POLKA” Stephen Wright (first published 2006)
Because I’ve been reading a novel by Charles Frazier, I am put in mind of his American Civil War novel Cold Mountain. And this sets me thinking of two other good American novels I have read in recent years, which dissect aspects of the same conflict, even if their approaches are not the same as Frazier’s.
Both share an unsentimental view of the war, a refusal to be misled by sanitised Gone With the Wind-type images of the Old South, and a focus on the unpleasant issue of slavery.
Geraldine Brooks’ March burns with anger, yet manages to contain it in an restrained, rational, and therefore doubly disturbing prose style.
You may recall that in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Mr March, a right-thinking Protestant clergyman from Concord, Massachusetts, goes off as chaplain to Union troops during the American Civil War. Apart from the odd letter, we don’t hear much about him until “Marmee”, the dutiful Mrs March, rushes off to tend him in hospital. He then returns home for the story’s happy ending. Intended for a juvenile female readership, Little Women is mainly about the daughters Meg, Beth, Jo and Amy. The father of the family is little more than one of the “noises off”.
I know Louisa May Alcott’s books drip with sentimental pieties that many now find hard to stomach. But I wouldn’t belittle her. Anyone who can write books that still hold a young audience over a century later has to have some sort of talent. From reading all four of her books about the March family to my own younger daughters (Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys), I know girls can still enjoy them, in spite of their patches of heavy moralising.
Geraldine Brooks doesn’t belittle Alcott either. Her (very adult and not-for-children) novel March is not one of those tiresome rewrites of the classics which assume that we are now so much more intelligent and perceptive than earlier generations were. Brooks respects her characters’ intelligence, but she sets about imagining what the Reverend March was doing in the year he was away from his family.
A devoted abolitionist, March has been happy to join the North’s crusade against slavery. He is horrified to find that many in the Union army are not as idealistic about the issue as he is. The novel gives us the horrors of war, but even more grisly is its revelation of the realities of slavery and the cynicism of many of those fighting to overthrow it. In effect, a somewhat naïve man discovers that human motivation is a trickier thing than he had imagined.
One episode is particularly shocking. Momentarily (in a flashback to a antebellum visit to the South), March has been seduced by the cultured and cultivated conversation of a slave-owning Southerner, a man who can quote Shakespeare and the Romantic poets at need and wax lyrical about soulful aspects of literature. Thinking he is in a land of the civilised, March is therefore devastated to see the same man, a few hours later, order the merciless flogging of a woman slave who has learnt how to read.
There is also the matter of interracial sex. Geraldine Brooks doesn’t wallow in it. Sexual incidents are implied rather than described, but enough is told for us to understand that there were some things the clergyman would not have included in his letters home.
One of the best things about this accomplished novel is its narrative voice. Until about three-quarters of the way through (when “Marmee” takes over) the Reverend March himself tells the story. Geraldine Brooks gets the 19th century tone and vocabulary just right. It is perfect pastiche, even better than Owen Marshall’s narrative voices in his recent historical novel The Larnachs. March’s voice also allows us to confront a theme so dear to the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer – the priggishness of liberals, even when they are supporting an unimpeachably good cause. We sympathise with March, but also see the limits of his sympathies for others.
I think Brooks’ novel suffers a slight failure of nerve in the last pages, when Brooks feels compelled to spell out its message. Otherwise (like Frazier’s Cold Mountain; like Janice Galloway’s outstanding Clara) it gives the impression that the author knows how people once lived and thought and were inspired. She has had the imaginative sympathy to think herself into a past age.
Stephen Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka is not quite in the same league, especially as Wright is even more ready than Brooks to spell out a moral to us. The Amalgamation Polka has passages of rich and evocative prose, but also occasional crashes into bathos. I’d have to say, too, that Wright’s technique is as much surrealistic as realistic.
In 300 pages we follow the picaresque adventures of Liberty Fish, symbolically named son of abolitionists in the years before the civil war. White Southern mother ran away from her Carolina plantation home, disgusted with her slave-owning parents. Father is a real Yankee. Liberty grows up dimly aware that they are involved in the “underground railroad” for escaped slaves.
In the novel’s leisurely first half, Wright lets his sentences ramble through more luxuriant sub-clauses than most writers this side of William Faulkner. And glorious rambling it is too, taking us on a trip up the filthy, polluted Erie Canal, a peek at P T Barnum’s museum of bunkum in New York, and a four-page description of a fairground dentist extracting a man’s teeth without benefit of anaesthetics. We’re being served, graphically, the messiness and unpredictability and “otherness” of the past, with the subtext that the industrialised North in which Liberty grows up is a radically flawed society. Yet its war against slavery is still a righteous one.
Wright’s civil war battle scenes are surprisingly dull and conventional; but the novel regains its strength when Liberty visits the plantation of his demented slave-owning grandfather. Babbling a mixture of racist mythology, the Old Testament, and Social-Darwinist pseudo-science, the obscene old man offers copious justifications for racial inequality. This is where the novel is at its most surreal. We can see the old man is a lunatic because Wright vividly shows us so.
Unfortunately, Wright is not content with showing us. He has to tell us too, and the novel deflates a bit. We are solemnly warned that grandpa is talking “a vicious farrago of humbug, deluded fancy and crackpot ethnology”, in case we didn’t get the point for ourselves. Other moral-pointing nudges its way into the final chapters. A pity, as otherwise this oddity is nearly the equal of Frazier’s and Brooks’ takes on the same general situation.
Taken as a whole, however, both these novels are good examples of historical novels for grown-ups, conveying past documentary realities without seeming mugged-up; and not allowing their characters to be embodiments of historians’ textbook judgments on the past. Well worth hunting out.