A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Awards Season

The National Book Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, just announced the nominees for its annual book awards. And as usual, I'm embarrassed by how many I haven't read or reviewed.

Here they are:

Joshua Clark,
Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone, Free Press
Edwidge Danticat,
Brother, I'm Dying, Knopf
Joyce Carol Oates,
The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982, Ecco
Sara Paretsky,
Writing in an Age of Silence, Verso
Anna Politkovskaya,
Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin's Russia, Random House

Philip Gura,
American Transcendentalism, Farrar, Straus
Daniel Walker Howe,
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, Oxford University Press
Harriet Washington,
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Doubleday
Tim Weiner,
Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, Doubleday
Alan Weisman,
The World Without Us, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s

Vikram Chandra,
Sacred Games, HarperCollins
Junot Diaz,
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Riverhead
Hisham Matar,
In the Country of Men. Dial Press
Joyce Carol Oates,
The Gravedigger's Daughter. HarperCollins
Marianne Wiggins,
The Shadow Catcher, Simon & Schuster.

Tim Jeal,
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, Yale University Press
Hermione Lee,
Edith Wharton, Knopf
Arnold Rampersad,
Ralph Ellison. Knopf
John Richardson,
The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Knopf
Claire Tomalin,
Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press

Mary Jo Bang,
Elegy, Graywolf
Matthea Harvey,
Modern Life, Graywolf
Michael O'Brien,
Sleeping and Waking, Flood
Tom Pickard,
The Ballad of Jamie Allan, Flood
Tadeusz Rozewicz,
New Poems, Archipelago

Joan Acocella,
Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Pantheon
Julia Alvarez.
Once Upon a Quniceanera, Viking
Susan Faludi,
The Terror Dream, Metropolitan/Holt
Ben Ratliff,
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus
Alex Ross.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus

Actually, I only reviewed one of them. Here's my review, which appeared in the Mercury News and the Houston Chronicle:

By Arnold Rampersad
Knopf, 688 pp., $35

Confronted with something as messy and complicated as a human life, a biographer can too easily fall into the trap of simplification, seizing on one prominent aspect of the subject’s character and history, the way a caricaturist turns a potato nose or jug ears into the dominant feature in a cartoon. On the other hand, if the life surveyed is long enough and complex enough, the biographer may be tempted just to report the incidents and events and let the reader do the hard work of shaping them into a coherent image.

What makes Stanford professor Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison so immensely engaging, so satisfying, is that he steers deftly between these extremes.

The temptations are certainly there. Ellison was caricatured during his life as a "one-book wonder" and as an "Uncle Tom." And his life spanned most of the 20th century – he was born in 1913 and died in 1994 – in which black Americans moved from Jim Crow, through the civil rights struggle and Black Power, and into the era of "benign neglect."

In his lifetime, Ellison gave us the indelibly powerful novel "Invisible Man" and two volumes of incisive, penetrating essays. He was richly rewarded with fellowships and lectureships and memberships in hitherto whites-only organizations, as well as with a great deal of money. He dined at the White House and counted among his friends some of the most eminent writers and intellectuals.

But he also remained aloof from the community of black writers, many of whom might never have found print or voice if it hadn’t been for his pioneering work. As a member of the exclusive Century Club in Manhattan, he made no effort to recruit other black members (and strongly opposed the admission of women to the club). He steadily refused to provide blurbs for the books of younger black writers. When he was appointed to a tenured professorship at New York University, he insisted on teaching American literature, not black literature, even at a time when universities were responding to pressure to introduce black studies courses and departments. (His attitude may have sparked a backlash in black studies courses elsewhere. When the novelist-to-be Charles Johnson asked a librarian in the black studies program at Southern Illinois University for a copy of "Invisible Man," he was told that "Ralph Ellison is not a black writer.")

Ellison defied the temper of the times, even resisting linguistic change when "Negro" gave way to "black." He explained, "I’m pretty close to black, but I’m pretty close to brown, too. In a cultural sense, the term 'Negro' tells me something about the mixture of African, European, and native-American styles which define me. … Black, in America, connotes a certain ideological stance. In that sense, I am not black. I am a Negro-American writer. I emphasize Negro because it refers specifically to an American cultural phenomenon."

The resistance to ideology is central to Ellison’s approach to the world and his art. He had flirted with communism as a young man, though he never joined the Communist Party, and the experience left him soured. In Ellison’s view of things, after the initial successes of the civil rights struggle, the movement for equality and justice for black people had turned ideological. He remained radically individualistic – he opposed affirmative action programs, for example. In our current polarized political climate, he would probably be labeled a conservative. Although Ellison strongly opposed the cutback in federal social programs that began with the Reagan presidency, as Rampersad observes, "He blamed excessive liberalism for the rise of conservatism under Reagan."

But Rampersad is not one to apply labels to Ellison, even the perhaps more stinging one of "one-book wonder." "Invisible Man" appeared in 1952, and for the next 42 years of his life, Ellison was pained by his inability to produce a second great novel and by the public’s curiosity about his work in progress. In 1967, he lost some manuscript pages of this second novel in a fire that destroyed his summer home. At first he downplayed the loss, saying that he had copies of what he'd done. But later, when he was asked about his slowness in producing the book, he began to blame the fire, and sometimes upped the estimate of pages lost to 365 or even 500. At his death, he left some 2,000 pages of manuscript, which were whittled down by his literary executor, John F. Callahan, into the 400-page novel "Juneteenth," published in 1999.

His failure to produce elicited scathing comments from some younger writers. The poet Nikki Giovanni said, "as a writer Ellison is so much hot air, because he hasn’t had the guts to go on writing." But Rampersad suggests that Ellison suffered not so much from writer’s block as from an inability to focus, and often from the difficulty of keeping his material contemporary. "Invisible Man" was written out of the experience of a black man in Jim Crow America. But as the role of black citizens in the social and political dynamic of the United States changed in the 1950s and ’60s, reality often outpaced the imagination. At one time, the second novel was to hinge on a political assassination, but the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. eclipsed Ellison’s fiction.

It’s possible that Ellison was not really cut out to be a novelist. One pregnant observation came from Ernest Gaines, who found "Invisible Man" "a cold book. It’s more a collection of essays than a novel." And that may in fact be the problem that Ellison never really comprehended: that he was, like his namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson, essentially an essayist and not a novelist.

Rampersad lauds Ellison for his "brave refusal of coarse, destructive forms of militancy, his eloquent embrace of a studied moderation, and his complex patriotism." But he also portrays him as a conflicted man, whose outward elegance – once he could afford it he was always expensively, conservatively dressed – concealed private demons. In his own encounter with Ellison, an interview conducted when Rampersad was working on his biography of Langston Hughes, Rampersad found him "chilly." "James Baldwin called him the angriest man he knew," Rampersad tells us. And after his death, Toni Morrison wrote that Ellison "saw himself as a black literary patrician, but at some level this was a delusion. It was simply his solution to that persistent problem black writers are confronted with: art and, or versus, identity. I don’t see tragedy in his predicament. I see a kind of sadness instead."

In Rampersad’s hands, Ellison’s life emerges as one of the essential literary lives of the 20th century, as reflective of the times in which he lived as, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s was of the 1920s. Like Fitzgerald’s landmark novel, “The Great Gatsby,” Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a product of a particular time. "Gatsby" epitomizes the 1920s just as "Invisible Man" is a document of the struggle against Jim Crow, but both are also works that are enduringly transcendent of time and place. Rampersad’s exemplary biography, written with a blend of deep sympathy and cool detachment, splendidly achieves the one true task of literary biography: It illuminates the life so that we may better understand what it produced.