David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2009

Bessie Head: A Question of Power

I own a first edition of this book (thank you Roanoke City Public Library), and though it has an excellent cover painting which is strikingly apt, the jacket text and two blurbs (by Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni) are terrible at giving any idea of what the book is actually about. The jacket text makes it out to be an uplifting work of social realism, while the blurbers are just vague. What they all avoid mentioning is that the book’s main character, a half-white/half-black South African single mother refugee in Botswana (as Head herself was), is schizophrenic and her hallucinations make up at least half of the novel. The hallucinations evade easy explanation as well as specificity; their achievement is to make A Question of Power transcend any easy classification as an “African” or “feminist” novel while still dealing with those very issues in specific terms. The hallucinations keep the book expansive and confounding.

The book is divided into halves called “Sello” and “Dan,” named for the main hallucinated figure during that section. Nonetheless, each appears in each other’s section, there is a much larger cast of characters, and “Sello” and “Dan” do not fall into any easy opposition. Each section alternates between these hallucinations and short, controlled descriptions of real life encounters between the main character, Elizabeth, and the others in her farming village, both natives and Peace Corps workers. Again, there are no blatant parallels. Elizabeth’s alienation from her surroundings, her race, her son, and men manifest themselves in the hallucinations, but so do less personal issues of human mythology (Buddha makes a few appearances), good and evil, gnosticism, and other things.

Of the two main visitors, Dan is the more straightforward. He appears as a kind of pan-African overman, parading an endless (73, actually) series of women before Elizabeth, taunting her by having sex with them and praising them while ridiculing her. He is a demon, but a lesser one; Elizabeth comes to realize that “She was being killed by Dan, but Sello had started it. The story had begun with Sello and Medusa.” The grand war between Sello and Medusa occupies a large chunk of the first half of the book, and it’s far more puzzling than Dan and his women. Amidst strange symbols and images and a recounting of the story of Osiris and Isis, there is this passage, which suggests the struggle of the book itself:

The wild-eyed Medusa was expressing the surface reality of African society. It was shut in and exclusive. It had a strong theme of power-worship running through it, and power people needed small, narrow, shut-in worlds. They never felt secure in the big, wide flexible universe where there were too many cross-currents of opposing thought.

The antagonisms between Sello and Medusa, and later between Dan and Elizabeth, seem to both stand in some way for that opening up of one’s self to the greater world and the abdication of power and the struggle around it. Yet Sello is hardly unalloyed goodness; he makes things very difficult for Elizabeth, scares the hell out of her, and exposes her to a good deal of evil. The ultimate result, though, seems to suggest that Elizabeth views the process as one of working through, that her hallucinations have a substantive reality that bring her closer to the world in its entirety, and that for all her pain and suffering, the journey was invaluable.

The novel does have a uplifting end, with a seeming rapprochement with Sello and the cosmos that he comes to represent, but it is a qualified optimism. The universe that is revealed to Elizabeth is a very scary place and the struggles that she endures are torturous, yet Head resists any suggestion of triumph or resolution, suggesting instead that what Elizabeth has gained is understanding. It is, as I read it, an understanding that is private and specific to her, and so I think the exact meaning of some of her hallucinations is not for a reader to be certain of, as they represent one person’s individual mythology. Nor do they yield concrete results for the many political, economic, and racial issues that they raise. So among the intense imaginative fervor of the book’s hallucinated scenarios and the difficult life of Elizabeth, there still remains an intimidating sense of intractability, and that is the challenge to readers that the book presents.

Twelve-tone Film Scores

Here are three that Wikipedia lists and a fourth I dug up. There must be many others that use serialism at least partly, but I don’t know them offhand. Anyone want to chime in?

Benjamin Frankel: The Prisoner (1955)

Ernest Gold: On the Beach (1959)

Benjamin Frankel: Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

David Shire: Taking of Pelham 1-2-3

Update: Not 12-tone, but since Morricone came up in the comments, this is one of my favorites of his, featuring Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza:

Attila Bartis: Tranquility

This book just won the Three Percent Best Translation of 2008 prize, and while I can’t speak to the translation (though I have it on good authority that it’s excellent–thanks GJ), I was happy to have it win, being a booster of Hungarian lit in general (and Laszlo Krasznahorkai in particular). Jeff Waxman describes a not-uncommon worldview of Hungarian literature when he says, “Tranquility is a book of unfathomable realism—by which, of course, I mean endless cruelty, depthless pain and emotional deadness.” Hungarian director Bela Tarr said it even better:

And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us…I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.

And it’s fair to say Bartis subscribes to something on the order of this view. What he brings to Tranquility that is very much his own is hysteria, at a level that is rarely encountered at such sustained length. Bernhard is a good contrast: while Bernhard’s narrators are obsessive, ranting, and irate, they are very rarely hysterical. Bartis’s breathless portrayal of unrelenting stress and compression owes the most, I’d say, to Celine and his spiritual disciple E.M Cioran, with a bit of Portnoy’s Complaint (namely, the end) mixed in.

And with a book that is pitched so consistently at the level of hysteria, Bartis has to keep the changes coming so that the tone does not become monotonous. The story of Andor, a middle-aged man, and his exceedingly unhealthy realationship with his mother and only slightly healthier relationships with several women careens around just as Andor careens between the three women in his life (and the one absent one, his sister), never settling in one place long enough to set up a sustained narrative. This is evidently intentional, as the plot necessarily cannot get started with such a tone at work. Any concession to traditional narrative dynamics would wreck the effect, and this book is all about effect.

Such a sustained howl can become numbing or exhausting; at times Bartis piles on so much pain that the book risks becoming a shaggy-dog story. It’s ultimately Andor’s relationship with his mother, and the sheer acuity and inexorability of it, that holds it all together. The other women are sweet relief in comparison. For Bartis, it seems that that level of hysteria, that sheer limit at which there is no appeal to reason and no possible escape, is fundamentally fostered in the mother-son bond.

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