52 Weeks of Literature, Week Five: “A Fringe of Leaves” by Patrick White

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Representative excerpt: “The blood was running warm and sticky over her hands. Round the mouth, and on one smeared temple, more transparent than she had ever seen it, flies were crowding in black clots, greedy for the least speck of crimson before the sun dried the virtue out of it.” (p. 240)

The title, A Fringe of Leaves, refers—we learn over halfway through the book—to the vine-like cord that Ellen Roxburgh ties around herself to keep hold of the one piece of “civilization” (in the narrow sense that she would likely use that broad word) that she has left—her wedding ring. This scene of despondence comes around the time when the novel transitions, abruptly yet smoothly, from what is essentially an old-fashioned post-Regency tale moved to penal-colonial Australia to a white-knuckle survival tale full of murder, rape and cannibalism. It is the novel’s strength that this transition is not so much one between genres (the prose style remains consistent) as it is simply one between places. The British decorum of the mansions and ships dotting the edges of Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania today) collapses rapidly in the interior, from where the Aborigines brood at the white marauders who will soon take over the continent and subject their persons and cultures to genocide. Roxburgh’s fringe of leaves is of course a symbol of the tenuous border between these two spheres, at once linking and dividing them. It is nature dwarfing the Western ideals of “order” and “progress” while the British and the first white Australians struggle to contort it so as to shelter and uphold them. But were the British ever truly distinct from the Aborigines?—by which I ask, are we ever much more than reflections of the primal, the instinctive, the animal? So much of us remains governed by biological principles—the need for sex from our beloveds and from others, the need to propagate the human race and feed (perhaps breastfeed) our offspring, the ridiculous need for power and hierarchy. These impulses fuel and underscore the British characters just as much as they do the Aboriginal tribes who rival them. They are different civilizations with identical skeletons.

Inspired by the true story of Eliza Fraser—the namesake of Fraser Island—A Fringe of Leaves was Patrick White’s first novel after his Nobel triumph, and it is astonishing for displaying both honesty and respect in its treatment of Australian Aborigines. The novel’s first half is a patient, almost plot-less account of the visit that Roxburgh and her husband Austin pay to her brother-in-law Garnet in Tasmania. The thematic concerns seem typically domestic for a novel of the period: Ellen’s previous life as a rustic Cornishwoman, the shift her personality took when she married Austin and moved up a class, her multiple stillbirths, Austin’s poor health, Ellen’s curious relation with Garnet, etc. Aware that the narrative would not remain in this register forever (the genre switch is foreshadowed, rather too neatly, in the first chapter), I was anxious about whether the portrayal of the Aborigines would be archaic in the worst possible sense, even while I was admiring White’s prose—which can seem florid and austere at first, but which I adapted to as I went along. This story is a slow, slow burn. White makes the reader spend time in this world and learn about it. Then, out of nowhere, he hurls a shipwreck at us, and from that point forward—well, all I really have to say is: whoa. The body count ramps up, and the author gutsily explodes the entire literary world he put so much effort into constructing. That takes Nobel-caliber talent to pull off, and White pulls it off. The tension arises not from the Aborigines themselves, but from the animosity between the whites and the natives, which is stewed in imperialism and the language barrier. The indigenous tribe here is brutal and ruthless, but it is not a racist caricature; one gets the sense that White did his homework and studied the culture. Critically, the Aborigines make an effort to integrate Roxburgh into their culture and push her to forfeit her class privilege, challenging and changing her in the process.

I could gripe about some wheel spinning in the first half, the implausibility of Ellen’s schizophrenic code switches between her contemporary RP self and her Cornish adolescent self, the cramming of a few too many new characters into the dénouement, and the handful of blunt, cruddy character names (Miss Scrimshaw, Jack Chance, et al). Screw all that. This is the first novel I read this year that I can recommend with any degree of enthusiasm. (Last Words from Montmartre, I recommend with caution and measurement. Don’t read it if you’re depressed.) The prose and the shift into high-gear survival mode make the slow burn more than worth it. Ellen’s odyssey with the Aborigines and her escape from them—which is not without assistance, from a surprising ally—is in itself a tour de force, a single hundred-page chapter, perfectly paced and sustained, never once plodding nor moving in haste. I kept on wondering whether I as an author would have Ellen stay with the tribe even longer, or if I would increase the tempo and skip over some of the more extraneous details. I then realized that my uneasy alternating between those two opposites meant that the narrative’s timing was solid and benefited the book. Patrick White is widely considered the greatest Australian author. I used to approach his dense, viscous texts with trepidation, but now that I’ve pushed myself through and been rewarded by A Fringe of Leaves, I am eager to dig into the rest of his oeuvre.

Grade: A

What’s Next: I’ll review A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tomorrow, and Anna Seghers’ Transit shortly thereafter.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Five: “A Fringe of Leaves” by Patrick White

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Two: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk

Turkish Nobel literature laureate Orhan

Representative excerpt: [From the perspective of a counterfeit gold coin] “…let me list for you the various things I might be exchanged for: the foot of a young and beautiful slave girl, which amounts to about one-fiftieth of her person; a good-quality walnut-handled barber’s mirror, edges inlaid with bone; a well-painted chest of drawers decorates with sunburst designs and silver leaf worth ninety silver pieces; 120 fresh loaves of bread; a grave site and coffins for three; a silver armband; one-tenth of a horse; the legs of an old and fat concubine; one buffalo calf; two high-quality pieces of china; the monthly wage of Persian miniaturist Mehmet the Dervish of Tabriz and the majority of those of his like who work in Our Sultan’s workshop; one good hunting falcon with cage; ten jugs of Panayot’s wine; a heavenly hour with Mahmut, one of those young boys world-renowned for his beauty, and many other opportunities too numerous to specify.” (pp. 102-3, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar)

Retro will always be in vogue. Nostalgia sells. The desire to go back in time, resurrect the past and ape the fashions of eras long gone is in all of us. The present in this way is a concave mirror, reflecting and shining a light on previous generations to better define itself while itself remaining nebulous, and while the future remains a total blank. Do we really ever know our own zeitgeist—the styles and auras that make our place and time unique—until some decades later? How exactly should we define the 2010s, since we are already halfway through them? We might answer that we’ve assembled the 2010s from the detritus of the still-opaque ‘00s, which was itself crafted out of the fragments of the now-clearer 1990s, etc. From a historiographical perspective, it helps that the Old and New Millennia can be cleanly differentiated by 9/11—until we remember that Osama bin Laden was of course one of the most serious geopolitical threats of the ‘90s. Lost in the present, we retreat to the past and seek answers from it. My Name is Red, the novel that (along with Snow) propelled the Turkish postmodernist Orhan Pamuk to his 2006 Nobel triumph, draws much of its power from the genres and forms of yore. Parables, fables, poetry, Quran interpretations, a traditional love story and a classic murder mystery all amass into one hodgepodge in which they’re able to riff and commentate on each other and themselves. It looks innovative and challenging, but the ingredients are familiar. Pamuk brings back centuries-old modes of storytelling to bear on the present, to remind us of lessons we may have forgotten, to reintroduce perceptions new to us but well-known in history.

Written before and published in English around the time of 9/11, Red is well positioned to provide a discourse on Islam, as Turkey seems one of the few nations (Albania is another) able to compromise Islam with secularism and syncretism. Set in late-1500s Istanbul, it opens with the murder of one Ottoman miniaturist—an esteemed book illustrator—by another. Both are involved in the task of creating a series of miniatures celebrating the life and reign of their Sultan. This task is kept confidential, as it essentially demands several affronts to Islam such as idolatry and blasphemy. Small wonder it leads to bloodshed. The murder mystery itself is, in execution, the novel’s most egregious blemish: there are only three suspects, who are not as much characters as they are vessels for the narration of parables. Besides the killer—who is privileged to share his point-of-view in anonymity—the men are distinguished by themes, not by personalities. This makes the reader’s duty of trying to solve the murder a near-impossible sludge. Thankfully, the narrative’s other major component—its love story—is much more riveting. The one non-suspect miniaturist, Black, returns to Istanbul after a long exile with the intention of wedding his widowed cousin, Shekure, the daughter of his uncle and mentor, Enishte. This story and other subplots are paralleled neatly—like a single prism showing off a rainbow of color—with the Turkish legend of Hüsrev and Shirin, which is similar to the Greek legend of Oedipus in that Hüsrev is envied and slaughtered by his own son. Divisions are drawn across various generational lines; there are not just conflicts of old versus young, but also those of tradition versus innovation, and of the Quran versus free expression. Mired in this mess is the question of how the Sultan’s book will represent the Ottoman Empire to Europe and the world.

It’s heady stuff, sometimes to its own detriment. There are times when Pamuk is more interested in displaying his vast knowledge of Turkish history, mythology, art and literature than in getting on with the narrative—and this only serves to bring more attention to the tedious regimentation of the many meta-literary parables, most of which blend into and repeat each other. When he does push the story forward, it’s thrilling. His most profound literary choice is to distill that story between multiple perspectives, some of which I doubt any author has thought up before. The color red, the alleged gold coin from the quote above, Death more as a condition than as a figure, a young version of the author inserted conveniently into the text—all of these and more are endowed with their own voices and personas, which are both original and plausible. Such personifications give credence to Red’s most haunting theme—the fundamental Islamic concept that “the blind and the seeing are not equal,” namely that the capacity to see does not alone indicate sight. Herein, the miniaturists who aspire to greatness are necessarily impelled to become blind in old age, whether by intense visual labor or by deliberate injury, so as to let their artistic talents ossify and to perceive the unknowable as Allah does. To see in a spiritual sense sometimes does require forsaking the privilege of physical sight and of learning through viewing. Perhaps we fail to define our eras and our religious/spiritual beliefs because we rely too much on the present we can “see”, and too little on the past we cannot.

Grade: B+

Next week: I head home to New York to read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Two: “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here.

In his true-life mystery Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano—last year’s Nobel Literature winner—writes:

In 1942, my father and his accomplices had plundered the SKF warehouse on the Avenue de la Grande-Armée [in Paris] of its stock of ball bearings, loading their lot onto trucks and transporting it back to the den on the Avenue Hoche from which they operated their black market business. According to German decrees, Vichy laws, and articles in the press, they were no better than vermin and common criminals, so they felt justified in behaving like outlaws in order to survive. For them, it was a point of honor. And I applaud them for it.

I must disagree with the Laureate on that. Sure, one with a prejudice often holds onto it regardless of how wrongheaded it is or how much proof there is against the myths it produces. But is there not more strength in defying a preconception one has about you than there is in confirming it? The latter risks perpetrating stereotypes and justifying (to some) the hatred you face; with the former, even if it does not diminish that hatred, at least you’ve shown you can stick to your principles. There will always be the moral question of whether Modiano’s father could have survived, or fought back against Vichy France and the Nazis, without resorting to the black market.

Modiano came back into my mind as I was watching The Asthenic Syndrome, an ambitious but in the end dubious take on the Soviet Union’s collapse from Ukrainian auteur Kira Muratova. Critical to reading the film is understanding the title in the context of Soviet psychiatry. Irina Sandomirskaia, in her essay on the film*, explains that the Soviets used the power of neurological diagnoses to inflict patients with constant self-doubt as to whether their distrust of, or dispassion towards, socialism indicated a rational mind. Asthenia herein “referred to minor dysfunctions of socialization, i.e. smaller, negligible breaches in the discipline of Soviet subjectivity […] [that] the subject was supposed to eliminate […] by himself” (66). Syndrome has two main characters who, among others, appear to suffer from this disorder. We see the first, Natasha (Olga Antonova), in a forty-minute sepia film-within-a-film, burying her husband (an ominous omen for Russia) and devolving into hysterics in her widowhood. When that film ends, we move into the arc of Nikolai (Sergei Popov), a struggling writer and religious schoolteacher who has narcolepsy, and who was hence asleep throughout the screening of Natasha’s film. Muratova thus emphasizes the falsity of her camera’s perspective; if no character inside or outside the meta-film shared its point-of-view, then where does it come from?

You can tell that the director seems to be constructing a Brechtian distance from the audience, yet that doesn’t strike me as the best, or even the most appropriate, tone for this material. An Orwellian satire may have been more effective in questioning what society would look like if politics really did determine pathology. Muratova does show some knack for satire, as demonstrated by the overacting of the extras who surround Nikolai in the various vignettes that he walks into—which Sandomirskaia links to the use of nonprofessional actors and their hackneyed, hyperbolic reliance on the dogmas of Russian theatre. Characters and actors alike appear trapped in the immobile sterility of Soviet culture, and I can sympathize with Muratova’s Brechtian choices in exploiting her art to reflect this; observe the scene when Nikolai recites to his students Soviet philosophical creeds as if from a script—which is to say, literally from a script.

What makes the film troublesome, notwithstanding, is its portrayal of Natasha’s and Nikolai’s asthenias as almost pure neuroses, with no clear political cause. To the extent that these are political metaphors, they’re vacant and rather glib. Natasha breaks wineglasses, acts out at passersby, prostitutes herself and displays savage mood swings insofar that being widowed seems a feeble excuse for such behavior, while Nikolai’s abrupt bouts of sleep usually do not signal any moments of political burden or upheaval. In depicting asthenia as pathology while forsaking satire for a sort of Godardian hyperrealism, Muratova acts as if Russian politics have had no effect on her co-protagonists’ mental states. Though she may do that to scoff at the idea of asthenia as disloyalty, the effect is of an unwillingness to confront the trauma of Soviet socialism—and, worse yet, of a view of psychosis as antisocial that mistakenly buys into the contrived doctrines of Soviet psychology. Not unlike Modiano’s father, Muratova takes the official party definition of asthenia and attempts to use it to reflect the inability of her characters to live under communism, as if to say that we all have the title disorder. But in pathologizing Natasha and Nikolai and refusing to give them any political dimension (except for when Nikolai is rushing through his aesthetic scribbles) and to give us any political alternative, she essentially gives the remaining Soviets a blank canvas on which they can use the asthenias to confirm their neuro-political ideologies, at a critical juncture in history when the Russian government really needed its feet held to the fire.

The effect of this backfiring is to make the characters’ antics tiresome, and that is a shame, as the film does contain some pointed commentary on meta-cinema, and on Russia in the liminal Gorbachev years. The teachers’ meeting, at which one teacher implies that the suppression of kids must not just be “physical” but also “psychological,” and a principal states that school must be like “military” and a “prison,” is harrowing and still relevant today, not least for how it reveals the grip that Stalinism and totalitarianism still holds on these lives. Muratova’s other shock tactics—which (as Sandomirskaia tells us) depend on the vast divergence between official and ethnic Russian speech, and which mean to be a counterpoint to Soviet mind-numbing—have grown dated (unless, I suppose, you are from Russia or know Russian) and made the film itself numbing and wearying. (Nowadays, I feel, the political elite uses shock and sensory overload to control its subjects, whereas art with a methodical, meditative tone can be a tonic to that.) From historical and meta-filmic standpoints, The Asthenic Syndrome is worth watching, even if merely as a case of a filmmaker trying to use the techniques of an oppressive regime—not least of which were glasnost and perestroika, under which this film was notably banned—against that regime, only to find herself further trapped in it.

Grade: C+

*Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2.1(2008): 63-83. Accessed via EBSCO Host.

Tomorrow: Sticking with the Eastern Bloc, we head to Poland to meet the Man in Marble.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”