ISSUE 15— December, 2010
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
This beautiful truth is attributed to Philo of Alexandria, among others, but I favor Philo for the quote. Philo was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Egypt under the Romans at the time of Christ, which seems the right time and place to have offered such generous advice.
That such deep wisdom is still rarely followed, after 2,000 years, is a shame, and you have to wonder, “Why didn’t we ever learn anything from these ancient sages?” The easy answer is that humans are weak-willed and self-centered—yet it remains strange to me that we often resist clear “goodness” (generosity to the unfortunate, say) so coldly, but devote ourselves unstintingly, selflessly, to following meaningless rituals and customs. Observe a holy holiday without fail, yes—but commit a random act of kindness? Not so likely.
Philo would agree; we’ve still got a lot of work to do on the concept of being kind, and at appreciating the hard battles others must fight every day.
Still, Philo’s spirit remains in the best of us, and since his time, certain novelists have exemplified that generosity in their art. They present their characters with similar compassion, and invite their readers to experience the “hard battles” of others for themselves, in a way that no other artform can achieve. Paintings, films, photography, music—all can arouse emotions and present moments of truth, but reading engages one’s inner eye, one’s imagination, like no other medium, and is the only way that other lives are truly embraced, taken into one’s own life.
Authors such as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Nadine Gordimer, and Saul Bellow—just to name a prominent few—have given us this generous spirit in their novels. Their characters are felt, and felt for, but not judged.
Here are two modern examples of that magnanimity—greatness of spirit.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Michael Chabon
I was given a copy of Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, soon after its 1988 publication, and enjoyed it very much. Then I kind of lost track of him, as sometimes happens, with so many great books piling up around me all the time, until another friend gave me his latest, a work of nonfiction, called Manhood for Amateurs.
More about that excellent piece of work another time, but it was the forthright wisdom expressed therein that compelled me to go back and catch up on Michael Chaybon’s (pronounced “Shay-bawn”) much-acclaimed fiction.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001, and I know of no reason not to start by saying, “I love this book.” Not only that I loved reading it, but I love having it as part of my life now. Lesley Choyce, another novelist with Michael Chabon’s greatness of spirit, once wrote to me in response to a glowing review of his latest novel, “You take books into your life.” He meant that not everybody did, of course, and our mission here at Bubba’s Book Club is to encourage and foster that kind of deeper relationship with books.
After reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I felt as though what had happened in its pages had happened to me. There is no greater praise for a fictionist, and that is what it means to take a book into your life.
Another admirable quality about the novel is its sheer scale—in human emotion and interrelations, and in history and knowledge. The “Author’s Note” at the end of the book gives a good representation of its depth, crediting sources and advisers on subjects ranging from professional magic, comic book pioneers, prewar Prague, New York, Levittown, Antarctica, the Empire State Building, early radio broadcasting, The New Yorker, and . . . the Kabbalah.
In the quality of its epic scale and depth of research, and thus the richness of the world created, I am reminded of other favorite modern novels, like John Irving’s Until I Find You (reviewed in Issue 3), Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and Robertson Davies’s “Deptford Trilogy” (see Issue 11).
One line in Michael Chabon’s “Author’s Note” expresses part of his intent: “I have tried to respect history and geography wherever doing so served my purposes as a novelist, but wherever it did not I have, cheerfully or with regret, ignored them.”
Not wanting to spoil the pleasure of discovery for potential readers, but only to tantalize, I can say that the story brings together Sammy Klayman, growing up in Brooklyn, and his cousin Josef Kavalier, a refugee from the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia, in the late 1930s.
Together they invent a superhero, “The Escapist,” whose origins are richly woven into the pair’s youthful experiences and scars. The newly-Americanized Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier become part of the “golden age” of comics, in the 1940s and ’50s, and wrestle with exploitative bosses, government paranoia, confused sexuality, longing and loss, and the whirl of history in those turbulent times. The Depression, fascism, the Holocaust, World War II, the bizarre outbreaks of fear and witch hunts of the late ’40s and early ’50s, all are brought dramatically to life through the lenses of Kavalier and Clay.
One excerpt that portrays the novel’s tragic view:
The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.
Opening the book at random, looking for an example of the novel’s humor and louche elegance, this page fell open, about a third of the way through. The excerpt is longer than usually included in this Book Club, but I think it merits the space:
“Hello, George.” Harkoo fought his way toward them, a round, broad, not at all long man, with thinning coppery hair cropped close. “I was hoping you would show.”
“Hello, Siggy.” Deasey stiffened and offered his hand in a way that struck Joe as defensive or even protective, and then, in the next instant, the man he called Siggy had put a wrestling hold on him, in which seemed to be mingled affection and the desire to snap bones.
“Mr. Clay, Mr. Kavalier,” Deasey said, fighting free of the embrace like Houdini jerking and thrashing his way out of a wet straitjacket. “May I—present—Longman Harkoo, known to those who prefer not to indulge him as Mr. Siegried Saks.”
Joe had an uneasy feeling, as if the name meant something to him, but he could not quite get hold of the connection. He searched his memory for “Siegried Saks,” shuffling through the cards, trying to pop the ace that he knew was in there somewhere.
“Welcome!” The former Mr. Saks let go of his old friend and turned smiling to the cousins; they each took a step back, but he just offered them his hand, with a mischievous twinkle in his mild blue eyes that seemed to suggest he subjected to his demonic hugs only those who least liked to be touched. At a time when an honorable place in the taxonomy of male elegance was still reserved for the genus Fat Man, Harkoo was a classic instance of the Mystic Potentate species, managing to look at once commanding, stylish, and ultramundane in a vast purple-and-brown caftan, heavily embroidered, that hung down almost to the tops of his Mexican sandals. The little toe of his horny right foot, Joe saw, was adorned with a garnet ring. A venerable Kodak Brownie hung from an Indian-beaded strap around his neck.
If that passage seems as vivid and intriguing to you as it does to me, there’s plenty more where that came from.
I often think of John Steinbeck’s dedication to East of Eden, addressed to his longtime editor, Pascal “Pat” Covici. Just one reading of that dedication, more than thirty years ago, engraved one phrase on my memory: Steinbeck had carved a wooden box to hold the typescript of the novel—his intended masterwork, and often acknowledged as such—when he presented it to Covici. About that box he wrote, “Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is that kind of novel—Michael Chabon gives his heart to his characters, and his mind to his story, and in the process, gives the reader everything he has.
The Lacuna (2009), Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver’s reputation was made with a sprawling novel called The Poisonwood Bible (1998), which first attracted my interest because of its African setting. Admiring that book, I went on to read all of her fiction and non-fiction. From her first fine novel, a song of the Southwest, The Bean Trees, to a rich and rewarding collection of nature essays, High Tide in Tucson, I enjoyed them all, but I was especially enraptured with Prodigal Summer (2000)—another one of those books that I truly, simply loved. I remember well the experience of reading it, on tropical mornings at a resort in Bahía, Brazil, with my wife, Carrie, after the band’s 2002 tour down there. Its texture felt as luxuriant as the rainforest and palm-fringed shore before me, and, like a tropical holiday, its ending came too soon. However, like the memory of that holiday, the warmth, sensuality, and tenderness of Prodigal Summer live on in my life.
One extra-literary achievement of Barbara Kingsolver’s I particularly admire is that she is a founding member of an ad-hoc rock band with Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, Amy Tan, and a changing cast of other authors. They perform at literary festivals, and call themselves the Rock Bottom Remainders (unsold books are “remaindered” at low, low prices). Sometimes musicians try to be writers . . . ahem . . . or comedians . . . but it is rare for an author to truly, actually “rock.”
Except in words, of course, and The Lacuna achieves a new level of excellence for Barbara Kingsolver. She is following that most admirable arc of an artist—getting better with every piece of work.
The story somewhat overlaps the time period and international events of Kavalier & Clay—from the 1930s, though in Mexico City rather than Prague and New York, into the 1940s and ’50s, and includes some of the same themes of sexual ambiguity and postwar paranoia victimizing people who are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.
The rendering of Mexico and its people is a triumph of research and affection, especially for an outsider—only comparable to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent. That last novel is not much admired, from what I can tell, but it made a strong impression on me. A comment made by Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, captures what I mean by writers giving: “All of Lawrence is in that book. Two years he spent writing it, one winter in Chapala, and the next winter in Oaxaca.”
Each of those novels resonates with the myths, iconography, and folklore of pre-Columbian peoples—the Aztecs, Olmecs, Toltecs, and Mayans—explicitly or implicitly, and that powerful cosmogeny is well represented in The Lacuna, both ways.
The portraits of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and their household—including exiled Russian Leon Trotsky—are finely drawn, economical yet sensually splendid, as are the landscapes and indoor settings. There is something painterly about Barbara Kingsolver’s descriptions, akin to Ernest Hemingway’s claim that he learned to describe landscapes from Paul Cézanne’s paintings. Even now I can picture the succession of backgrounds—the Mexican Gulf Coast, the streets and houses of Coyoacán, the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and Asheville, North Carolina—as a series of oil paintings.
Prodigal Summer was rendered in watercolors, washes of green on the Great Smoky Mountains, old American Gothic farmhouses, and the ghosts of the lost forests of great chestnut trees. In The Lacuna, the backdrops are confidently rendered with the simplified brushwork of Post-Impressionist oils: Frida Kahlo plus Paul Cézanne plus Edward Hopper plus Georgia O’Keeffe, say.
In 2010 The Lacuna was honored with a prestigious British award for women writers, the Orange prize for fiction. It placed Barbara Kingsolver among many distinguished peers—Carol Shields, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Annie Proulx. I was intrigued that one previous winner, Lionel Shriver, said that she had changed her name from Margaret Ann Shriver because she believed “men had an easier life.”
Perhaps we haven’t come so far from Mary Ann Evans, in 1856, deciding to call herself George
Eliot . . .
Gender and sexuality have always been important in literature—to the characters, and to the authors. It is noteworthy that in both of these novels, one character veils his true sexuality, sometimes even from himself. In both cases, redemption is achieved—or at least offered—by the love and respect of one woman.
Love and respect, love and respect—I have been carrying those words around with me for two years, daring to consider that perhaps they convey the real meaning of life. Beyond basic survival needs, everybody wants to be loved and respected. And neither is any good without the other. Love without respect can be as cold as pity; respect without love can be as grim as fear.
Love and respect are the values in life that most contribute to “the pursuit of happiness”—and after, they are the greatest legacy we can leave behind. It’s an elegy you’d like to hear with your own ears: “You were loved and respected.”
If even one person can say that about you, it’s a worthy achievement, and if you can multiply that many times—well, that is true success.
Among materialists, a certain bumper sticker is emblematic: “He who dies with the most toys wins!”
Well, no—he or she who dies with the most love and respect wins.
But why didn’t anyone ever tell me this? No one—not Mom and Dad, not Reverend Chisholm at St. Andrew’s United Church, not Miss Masters in Grade Six (she gave small prizes to students for memorizing bible verses in the early ’60s—probably not allowed these days), not Jesus, not Confucius, not Mohammad, not Krishna—no one ever seems to have imparted the simple idea that what we are supposed to do down here is go out into the world and earn love and respect.
Steve Martin once spoke of a life lesson he had learned: “No one will ever love you for working hard.” That is true, but it doesn’t stop many people from subconsciously living by that belief (guilty!). It is equally true that you will not earn anyone’s respect without working hard—not only at pursuits that might be respected by strangers (writing great novels, hitting things with sticks), but by living each day with the kind of integrity and generosity that earns the respect and love of friends and family members.
Then there’s love and respect for oneself—equally hard to achieve and maintain. Most of us, deep down, are not as proud of ourselves as we might pretend, and the goal of bettering ourselves—at least partly by earning the love and respect of others—is a lifelong struggle.
Philo of Alexandria gave us that generous principle which we have somehow succeeded in mostly ignoring for 2,000 years: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Great literature takes us into that battle, and in every example I can think of—every celebrated novel of the past few hundred years—there is a quest for love and respect.
Perhaps I have wandered a long way from a review of these two great novels.