Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts

Monday, April 30, 2012

Fiction as Non-Fiction

There are readers who devour mostly fiction and there are those who mostly read non-fiction.  Although I enjoy the occasional non-fiction work, mostly biographies, and, even then, tend to read biographies of writers or musicians, I happily settle down with a novel as my window to the world.  My non-fiction friends tell me I am wasting my time as they lecture about their newest insight into what makes the world tick, or how politics is evolving, and what history really means, from whatever non-fiction work they are reading at the time. 

Except for unassailable facts, what occurred and when, fiction and non-fiction can be topsy-turvy, with fiction being closer to the truth.  Most of my daily "non-fiction" consumption is reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, with an occasional Washington Post article for good measure. The WSJ has always had a conservative bent, even more so now that Murdoch's empire has annexed the newspaper and of course the NYT has a more liberal bias.  What the two newspapers have in common, though, is that they are well written.  However, it is amusing how they might look at the same issue, particularly when it comes to politics.  And they have become more polarized during the last four years as we've skirted a near economic depression and our government has moved to a state of immobilization.  That polarization has been further amplified in the media of radio and TV, and has become exponential on the Internet.  People seem to line up to read or view whatever seems to fit their belief system, a form of cognitive dissonance.  So much for so-called "non-fiction."

But writers of fiction and drama drill down to an inner world of their characters, trying to make sense of life from within.  Other artists, those in the performing or visual arts are doing the same, perhaps more abstractly.  What these authors and artists have to say about our world  matter as much as the journalists and non-fiction writers, perhaps more so.  The writers of non-fiction are filtering information even though it is purported to be fact.  The filters of fiction are more intangible leaving the reader not necessarily with neat conclusions, but frequently only with questions.  One has to actually think, something becoming more alien in our sound bite, "facetweet" cyber world.

So I find it fascinating when writers are asked to comment, directly, not through their fiction, about the state of the world.  The P.E.N. (poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) American Center is hosting a World VoicesFestival  beginning today and A. O. Scott, a critic for The New York Times asked Margaret Atwood from Canada, E.L. Doctorow from the United States, and Martin Amis from Britain "to consider the question of America and its role in global political culture." 

Margaret Attwood writes a playful parable by trying to explain the state of American culture and politics to a group of visiting Martians, Hello, Martians. Let Moby-Dick ExplainShe uses two well known short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne "The Maypole of Merry Mount," and "Young Goodman Brown" to make the point that the bickering over individual freedom vs. the rights of the group and the American quest of finding satanic elements in the enemy du jour is deeply ingrained in the American soul (witch hunting then, and "right now it’s mostly ‘terrorism,’ though in some quarters it’s ‘liberalism’ or even ‘evil-green-dragon environmentalism.’ ”) 

The Martians are TV and Internet savvy.  They come to their own conclusions about the US: "Though American cultural hegemony is slipping, we perceive: newly rich countries such as India and Brazil have developed their own mass media. Also, America’s promise of democracy and egalitarianism — the mainstay of its cultural capital, widely understood — is being squandered."

Attwood urges them to read Moby Dick, which they do in an instant (Martians are very bright) but  "then they consulted™ for an expression that would best convey their reaction. 'Holy crap!' " --- coming to the conclusion that the novel was a predictive metaphor for the very state of America today (check the link for details).  In short, to understand America, one must look to its literature.

In contrast to Attwood's playful but insightful piece, E.L. Doctorow writes a scathing prescriptive "primer," Unexceptionalism: A Primer  

This is a four phase process (we've gone through the first three and are in the process of completing the final phase argues Doctorow) "to achieve unexceptionalism, the political ideal that would render the United States indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world...."

Here is one of America's leading novelists, works such as Ragtime, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, and Homer & Langley, who is plainly disgusted at the direction of the country.  His "primer" is clearly an invective borne out of the same sense of powerlessness and frustration many feel.

Finally, the UK's Martin Amis weighs in with Marty and Nick Jr. Go to America about when he first visited America as a child with his family in 1958, (he and his brother wanting their names to "sound American" hence, "Marty" and "Nick, Jr.")  I like to read what visitors have to say about their impressions of America and once got caught up in Charles Dickens' first trip to America, incorporating some of his "American Notes" in my 2005 edited collection, New York to Boston; Travels in the 1840's

Amis' family came because his father was a visiting professor at Princeton.  Martin Amis says "We came from Swansea, in South Wales. This was a city of such ethnic homogeneity that I was already stealing cash and smoking the odd cigarette before I met — or even saw — a person with black skin." 

Some people would like to think that we live in a post-racial era but Amis reminds us of the entrenched racism, not only when he lived in America as a child (when he returned to the UK in 1967 his father wrote a poem about Nashville which ends But in the South, nothing now or ever. / For black and white, no future. / None. Not here.) but now as well, concluding with a reference to the Trayvon Martin case, with a cynical twist at the end, "Leave aside, for now, that masterpiece of legislation, Stand Your Ground (which pits the word of a killer against that of his eternally wordless victim), and answer this question. Is it possible, in 2012, to confess to the pursuit and murder of an unarmed white 17-year-old without automatically getting arrested? Ease my troubled mind, and tell me yes."

I wrote about the Trayvon Martin tragedy soon after it occurred.  Mine wasn't a race to judgment, but that is what the conservative press would have you believe is happening. A man is indeed innocent until proven guilty, Amen to that I say.  But who speaks for the "eternally wordless victim" as Martin Amis so forcefully posits? 

We live in volatile times and need to listen to our creative writers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


It is rare to read literature outside of my "comfort zone" of Contemporary American, and rarer still to read novels approaching 1,000 pages, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up Shantaram, recommended to me by my son, Jonathan, but within a few pages I was hooked. Really, a remarkable first novel, given its author, Gregory David Roberts, an Australian, was a convicted bank robber and heroin addict who spent ten years in an Australian prison before escaping and then fleeing to India. The novel is largely autobiographical. As he says in the Acknowledgements, it took him 13 years to write the novel and the first two drafts, "six years' work and six hundred pages were destroyed in prison."

He has a unique perspective on India, in particular Bombay which was to become Mumbai, but most people in India still call it Bombay, one of the most populous urban regions in the world. Dickens' London was such a city in the 19th century and in many ways Roberts' focus on the underbelly of the city reminds me of Dickens' concern with poverty, crime and imprisonment, and slum life. In fact, that is where real life can be found, in Oliver Twist, Bleak House and in Shantaram. They are also similar because of the multiplicity of characters. If you read Shantaram, develop a character list.

During many of my publishing years I worked through an agent for sales in India. Our business was not substantial enough to go there, but each year I met with our agent, Vinod, at the Frankfurt Bookfair, and we developed a good relationship. He was a tough negotiator, but he had a winning smile and in spite of other publishers' complaints about getting paid for sales to India, we shipped on open account and Vinod's word was always good. In reading this novel, Vinod kept coming to mind. Like Vinod, the first Indian, Prabaker, to befriend the novel's main character was a man with a winning smile. As another character in the novel says: "This is India, man. This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king, man. The fuckin' heart!

And at the heart of this novel, is India and its power of redemption for our main character, Lindsay Ford, who escapes from an Australian prison and stops in Bombay on his way to another destination. But Bombay becomes his home and he plunges into the nadir of society, becoming a resident in its slums through his friendship with Prabaker. It is Prabaker's mother, Rukhmabai Kharre, who gives him the name, Shantaram: "Man of Peace, or man of God's peace" "I don't know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow. Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I was born in those moments, as I stood near the flood sticks with my face lifted to the chrismal rain. Shantaram. The better man that, slowly, and much too late I began to be." But for much of the novel Shantaram is an ironic name as "Lin" or "Linbaba" as Prabaker names him, descends into familiar ways of violence and crime as the novel unfolds.

But there is a difference between his crimes in Australia and those in Bombay. He becomes a member of a mafia "family" and indeed, friendship, loyalty, and search for a spiritual father are also prevailing themes in the novel. There is honor among these thieves. As Abdel Khader Khan, his mafia boss and surrogate father says: "We concentrate our laws, investigations, prosecutions, and punishments on how much crime is in the sin, rather than how much sin is in the crime....It is for this reason that I will not sell children, or women, or pornography, or drugs....In all of these things, the sin in the crime is so great that a man must give up his soul for the profit he makes."

He adopts a "brother," Abdullah. "I learned that only one man in hundreds will stand with you, to the end, in friendship's name...Prison also taught me how to recognise those rare men when I met them. I knew that Abdullah was such a man. In my hunted exile, biting back the fear, ready to fight and die every haunted day, the strength and wildness and will that I found in him were more, and better than all the truth and goodness in the world."

And the novel is about love, unrequited and requited, particularly his undying love for Karla, a Swiss-American woman who lives in the shadows. "One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you."

Also central to this novel is the exile in society and literature. "When I'd climbed the wall of the prison all those years before, it was as if I'd climbed a wall on the rim of the world. When I slid down to freedom I lost the whole world that I knew, and all the love it held. In Bombay I'd tried, without realizing it, to make a new world of loving that could resemble the lost one, and even replace it."

And in that "new world" he meets others like himself and those became his family. "They were all, we were all, strangers to the city. None of us was born there. All of us were refugees, survivors, pitched up on the shores of the island city. If there was a bond between us, it was the bond exiles, the kinship of the lost, the lonely, and the dispossessed."

There is a dancing bear in the novel, Kano, which Abdullah arranges to hug Linbaba and some 800 pages later Linbaba finds himself helping the bear to leave the same prison in Bombay where he also has spent some tortuous time. Then he helps the giant bear to escape the city disguised as a Genesha, on a trolley, at the end of a an annual festival. "The elephant-headed god was known as the Lord of Obstacles and the Great Solver of Problems. People in trouble appealed to him with prayers....He was also the divine ministrant of writers." Throughout the novel people turn to Linbaba. He served as ministrant to all, from learning to treat illness in the slums to helping friends, to serving his mafia family. Redemption and loyalty. That is the essence of the novel.

As a literary work, it labors at times and I thought it really was two novels, the main one in Bombay and the one in Afghanistan. Apparently, there is a sequel in the works which takes Linbaba to Sri Lanka. Also, not surprisingly, the movie rights to this epic novel were sold because of Johnny Depp's interest in the book and in starring in the movie. Ideal casting methinks, but the novel is sprawling and wrestling it into a manageable screenplay and Depp's schedule has delayed filming. One hopes it will see the light of day, even if the movie has to be truncated to include only the Bombay experience. By the way, part of the novel covers the Bollywood scene, as it does nearly everything else!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cruise to Canada and New England

Although we lived in the northeast all of our adult lives before moving to Florida, and still spend the summers there on our boat, we had never taken our own boat north of Nantucket, so this summer we planned a trip to the Canadian Maritimes, but on a cruise ship, leaving the driving to someone else. And although we had navigated New York harbor on our own boat, there is nothing like leaving New York on a 93,000 ton vessel, where you pass Lady Liberty at eye level and
the entire panorama of New York slowly unwinds as you leave the pier at 55th Street and 12th Avenue and make your way towards and under the Verrazano Bridge, barely clearing the bridge in such a vessel. Passing Ellis Island stirred stories in my memory of my ancestors who were processed there, arriving from Cologne, Germany before the Civil War and afterwards building a photography business on the Bowery in lower Manhattan.

Having departed NY in the late afternoon, we emerged into the open waters of the Atlantic on way to the first port of our itinerary, Halifax NS. Our departure coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Igor in the Atlantic and although we were no closer at any time than about 1,000 miles, the storm stirred up the seas, resulting in considerable swelling. But for old salts such as ourselves, the 8 to 10 foot seas were very tolerable, particularly in such a large stabilized vessel. I felt sorry for the passengers who were wearing their wristbands and their patches behind their ears to ward off mal de mare, real or imagined. One could easily recognize such people from a slight glaze of fear in their eyes.

This first leg to Halifax took a full day and night from NY and we entered the harbor early in the morning, a special moment for me as several years ago I edited a book, New York to Boston; Travels in the 1840’s, which included selections from Charles Dickens’ American Notes (1842). Halifax was Dickens’ first stop after transiting the Atlantic Ocean on one of the early steamers -- and in January no less. One can understand his relief at arriving in Halifax, writing the following about his Atlantic journey: “Imagine the wind howling, the sea roaring, the rain beating: all in furious array against her. Picture the sky both dark and wild, and the clouds, in fearful sympathy with the waves, making another ocean in the air. Add to all this, the clattering on deck and down below; the tread of hurried feet; the loud hoarse shouts of seamen; the gurgling in and out of water through the scuppers; with, every now and then, the striking of a heavy sea upon the planks above, with the deep, dead, heavy sound of thunder heard within a vault.”

His ship went aground entering the Halifax Harbor and after being reassured that there was no danger of the ship sinking, or rolling over as the tide was on the rise, Dickens went to bed at 3:00 AM. Upon awakening the next morning, he wrote: “When I had left it over-night, it was dark, foggy, and damp, and there were bleak hills all round us. Now, we were gliding down a smooth, broad stream …the sun shining as on a brilliant April day in England; the land stretched out on either side, streaked with light patches of snow; white wooden houses; people at their doors; telegraphs working; flags hoisted; wharfs appearing; ships; quays crowded with people; distant noises; shouts; men and boys running down steep places towards the pier: all more bright and gay and fresh to our unused eyes than words can paint them.” They finally got off the ship for the first time in fifteen days, Dickens describing Halifax as follows: “I carried away with me a most pleasant impression of the town and its inhabitants, and have preserved it to this hour… The town is built on the side of a hill, the highest point being commanded by a strong fortress, not yet quite finished. Several streets of good breadth and appearance extend from its summit to the water-side, and are intersected by cross streets running parallel with the river…. The day was uncommonly fine; the air bracing and healthful; the whole aspect of the town cheerful, thriving, and industrious.”

I include Dickens description as remarkably it mirrors our own impression of Halifax, and I could not help thinking of his visit while there. Of course, things are more modern now, and the fort he referred to as being unfinished, The Citadel, was completed in 1856, fourteen years after Dickens’ visit.

It was a clear chilly day with nary a cloud in the sky when we were there, the wind having whipped around from the north after the passage of Hurricane Igor far to the east. We walked the extensive hills of Halifax. In some ways, it reminded us of a small Vancouver, with many ethnic groups, Halifax’s Pier 21 having served as the “gateway to Canada” as did Ellis Island in NY.

Our departure followed Dickens into the Bay of Fundy, but his ship went directly to Boston whereas we were on our way to Saint John, New Brunswick, on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy and at the mouth of the St. John River. The Bay of Fundy has always fascinated me because of its extreme tidal changes, an unthinkable fifty-five feet along with the strong currents that accompany such change. As a boater, I wondered how one would navigate and tie off to fixed docks for such a change (answer: time activity to avoid low tide or just sit on the bottom waiting for the tide to rise). Intent on seeing as much as we could of this phenomenon and the caves gored by tidal action, we wanted to travel parts of the Bay of Fundy trail and therefore we booked a private guide to be driven to all the highlights.

This turned out to be a fascinating part of the trip, not because of the scenery per se, which was not as memorable as we had hoped (we were there at the wrong tide, closer to high than low) but because of our driver, a woman in her early forties, and her unusual and remarkable life story.

She was born to a French-Canadian father and a mother who is part native Indian and actually was raised on a Reservation. In fact, her Uncle is currently a chief of one of the Micmac tribal villages. Our guide has twelve half brothers and sisters, all fathered by different men! Her mother had problems, too personal to go into detail here. But remarkably, our driver raised many of her half siblings from her early pre-teen years, and her own two sons and a daughter as well, completely on her own. Through much personal sacrifice and hard work, they have become upstanding citizens and she is currently a very proud homeowner and successful in her business, and is reconciled with her parents who rent a room in her house!

So while we toured and she explained the various sites, we were equally fascinated by this larger than life person, and her perspective on living in St. John, a beautiful part of the world.

From St. John the ship moved on to Bar Harbor, Maine, my friend Emily’s favorite place. Although our son went to Bates College in Lewiston, and we used to visit him there, regretfully we never found our way to Bar Harbor, a town that reminded us a little of Nantucket. Emily’s “go to destination” in town is Sherman’s Bookstore where she advised Ann to buy, Contentment Cove, a novel written by Miriam Colwell, which although she actually wrote in the 1950’s was published only four years ago. Ann loved the book, finishing it during the rest of the cruise (I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom)

Acadia National Park, with its striking views of the Porcupine Islands and much of Maine’s extensive coastline was a special treat. Before the fire of 1947, Bar Harbor had large, Newport-like “cottages” but most of these were consumed in the fireball that was fed from the Acadia woods by a dry strong wind. Today Bar Harbor’s 4,000 resident population grows ten times that in the summer. One can see why.

From Bar Harbor we cruised overnight to Boston, where we eagerly anticipated seeing our son, Chris. We decided to meet at The Institute of Contemporary Art where we were treated to highly interesting and imaginative work of Charles LeDray, an exhibition entitled workworkworkworkwork, “consisting of handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay.” These are all “smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.” The gestalt was to make the viewer’s life feel tiny in the continuum of time and space. This exhibit will tour, so be on the lookout! Afterwards, we had a wonderful lunch overlooking the Boston Harbor. The sun set over Boston as we departed.

The last port was one we had once visited on our own boat, many years before, Newport, RI. Here is one of the most beautiful, venerable NE seafaring towns, with its “cottages” for the rich and famous. Newport always has a breeze blowing and I remember having to back our boat down a corridor at the old Treadway Inn, currently another hotel, its docks now rearranged for mega vessels, with a crosswind that made the boat almost unmanageable. I think I made a mental note to avoid Newport thereafter, at least on our own boat. Nonetheless, I love the architecture in Newport.

Returning to New York early the next morning was dramatic as we caught the dawn and then the sunrise. The Williamsburg Bank tower in Brooklyn as well as the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges marked my return to an area I had spent a good part of my early adult life.

It was strange to see these landmarks from the perspective of the ship, four decades later, almost as if I am now a stowaway from another land.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

And to All a Good-Night!

How many times does one have to see a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to say “enough?” Never, I say, as every generation can find it’s own version, just as Hollywood always seems to find another way to rework the story. Today, the tale could be a morality play about our financial times, Scrooge being played by a Wall Street Banker du jour, Tiny Tim by a child lacking health insurance, Bob Cratchit by someone in foreclosure, while the unemployed gather beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Past or present Chairmen of the Federal Reserve could play the ghosts. I pick Paul Volcker for the Ghost of Christmas Present, as he seems to see things the clearest. Naturally, Bernie Madoff must play the part of Jacob Marley wearing his chains forged of Ponzi links.

For me, the classic tale still elicits an emotional response, especially the versions that come closest to Dickens’ original text. So in that spirit, I offer a couple of photos of our Xmas past, in our home in Connecticut where the holiday really felt like Christmas:

And this one from Florida Christmas Present, where it will be 80 degrees and one of the high points is the annual Christmas Boat Parade. It’s a Humbug, I say!