Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Styron the siren

William Styron, you poetic prince.  Are you American?  Can it be so?  Certainly not English.  Southern with a love for Paris you say?  Virginia boy, you make me want to drink a bottle of Cabernet and reread Nabokov.

"I remember those first weeks at Yetta's with remarkable clarity. To begin with, there was a magnificent surge of creative energy, the innocent and youthful abandon with which I was able to set down in so short a time the first fifty or sixty pages of the book.  I have never written fast or easily and this was no exception, for even then I was compelled to search, however inadequately, for the right word and suffered over the rhythms and subtleties of our gorgeous but unbenevolent, unyielding tongue; nonetheless, I was seized by a strange, dauntless self-confidence and I scribbled away joyously while the characters I had begun to create seemed to a acquire a life of their own and the muggy atmosphere of the Tidewater summer took on both an eye-dazzling and almost tactile reality, as if unspooling before my eyes on film, in uncanny three-dimensional color.  How I now cherish the image of myself in this earlier time, hunched over the schoolmarm's desk in that radiant pink room, whispering melodiously (as I still do) the invented phrases and sentences, testing them on my lips like some obsessed verse-monger, and all the while remaining supremely content in the knowledge that the fruit of this happy labor, whatever its deficiencies, would be the most awesome and important of man's imaginative endeavors -- The Novel.  The blessed Novel.  The sacred Novel.  The Almighty Novel.  Oh, Stingo, how I envy you in those faraway afternoons of First Novelhood (so long before middle age and the drowsy slack tides of inanition, gloomy boredom with fiction, and the pooping-out of ego and ambition) when immortal longings impelled your every hyphen and semicolon and you had the faith of a child in the beauty you felt you were destined to bring forth."

~ William Styron, Sophie's Choice

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Book Review: Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver puts evangelism in its place in her 1998 best-seller, which follows a southern Georgia missionary family as they move to the village of Kilanga in the Congo in 1959.  The Price family's story is narrated by each of the five girls:  Orleanna, the mother, and her four daughters, Rachel, Adah, Leah and Ruth May, and their journey parallels the country's tumultuous emergence into the post-colonial era.

Following their father on his mission to change Africa, the family found themselves swallowed and forever transformed by the dark continent.  Rachel remembers, "from the very first moment I set foot in the Congo, I could see we were not in charge.  We got swept up with those people that took us to the church for all their half-naked dancing and goat meat with the hair still on, and I said to myself this little trip is going to be the ruin of the Price family as we know it.  And, boy, was it ever."

While Congo gained independence from Belgium, the little societal order that existed disintegrated, and the same was true for the Price family.  Each member adapted to their new existence differently, and what was formerly a life of sixteenth birthday parties and Sunday luncheons became a daily test of survival. Malaria, poisonous snakes, lions and hostile villagers became the norm, and you will judge Orleanna for bringing her family there and not leaving her husband.  Her apathy hardens, and tragedy eventually forces her into a life of  denial, guilt and regret.  "For women like me, it seems, it's not ours to take charge of beginnings and endings.  Not the marriage proposal, the summit conquered, the first shot fired, nor the last one either -- the treaty at Appomattox, the knife in the heart.  Let men write these stories.  I can't.  I only know the middle ground where we live our lives.  We whistle while Rome burns, or we scrub the floor, depending.  Don't dare presume there's shame in the lot of a woman who carries on."

High recommendation here!  The historic backdrop is welcome, following the US attempted assassination of Lumumba, Mobutu's following rise in power, and the Church Committee investigations of it all.  You'll never forgive Orleanna or her husband, the tragic disintegration of their family will break your heart, and Africa's heart of darkness will chill you to the bone.