Friday, December 16, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 11: Wendy Walker

Best of 2011
by Wendy Walker

Without my having planned it, my reading this year seems to have circled around the topic of political pressure and how people respond to it. I started out by reading quite a bit about and by Joseph Conrad. Zdzislaw Najder’s excellent biography Joseph Conrad, A Chronicle shows how the author’s Polish background, and the political dilemmas it involved him in, inflected his life from day one. From the moment his parents were sent into exile for their underground political activities, he accompanying them though only a small child, he was launched into a world of experience which he drew on for his tales, of tyranny, imperialist exploitation, anarchism and espionage. Edward Said’s Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography delves deeply into narrative secrets and must be read by any lover of this author.

As to Conrad’s fiction, I was surprised by the power of his first and second (linked) novels. Almayer’s Folly and The Outcast of the Islands are not very widely read and have often been disparaged in comparison to the later work. Each deals with the perils of passion conceived across a cultural divide. The romantic subject matter and lush exotic setting are vehicles for a language utterly fitting, and new in English. One of the most fascinating results of Conrad’s colonial struggle is the impact of his native language upon his English prose style: Polish syntax underlies the structure of his so-distinctive sentences. Besides enriching his adopted literary tradition, Conrad’s writing went some way towards assuaging his deep sense of national loss and political estrangement.

I also read a number of books by and about brilliant American literary women. In Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, Mabel Loomis Todd, Emily’s brother’s lover, is the beautiful vampire who steals the show. Mabel Todd was responsible for getting Dickinson’s poems published after her death, but her possessiveness of the poet’s legacy was later matched by Arthur Houghton, a ruthless collector of manuscripts, who destroyed the integrity of the original fascicles in a campaign so underhanded one wishes Harvard hadn’t been capable of it. This book is a real page-turner, about hatred in a family possessed of a literary treasure, and how personal passions for dominance infect the struggle over literary legacies, to the endangerment of the manuscripts themselves.

Margaret Anderson, a leading light of the literary vanguard in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, wrote a four-volume autobiographical memoir, of which I read the last volume, The Strange Necessity. It covers the period during which Anderson’s journal, The Little Review, was put on trial under the obscenity laws for publishing excerpts from Joyce’s ms.-in-progress, Ulysses. Anderson’s book contains memorable passages on poetry, music, and publishing, as contextualized by her relationships with her friends, among them Jane Heap and Janet Flanner.

Silence and Power: A Re-evaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. Mary Lynn Broe, deals with one of my favorite writers, another member of Anderson’s circle. It contains a variety of illuminating essays about Barnes’s works, not least her famously difficult play The Antiphon. In an essay by Lynda Curry entitled “‘Tom, Take Mercy’: Djuna Barnes’ Drafts of The Antiphon,” the play is revealed to have been so radically reduced in length during the editing process by T. S. Eliot (!) as to render the plot incomprehensible in the published version. Curry goes over the excisions (which deal with rape and incest) and restores them, in the hope that the play as Barnes wrote it will be made available before long.

When a friend of mine died, I inherited part of his library, among which I found Friedrich Rech-Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair. This is an extraordinary document of WWII, recording the changes in a Bavarian village. The author, a member of the old aristocracy deeply opposed to the Nazis, closely observes Hitler’s changing behavior as the war wears on. Hitler is shown insecure and inept in social gatherings, a bully festering with resentments.

Susan Buck-Moss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History performs an invaluable service by daring to place so-called “fringe political developments,” in this case the Haitian Revolution, at the center of Western cultural history. She makes a persuasive case that Hegel’s concept of the master-slave dialectic was inspired by his daily reading of newspaper accounts of the slave insurrection in Saint Domingue, and the subsequent defeat of Napoleon’s army. She speculates on the importation of elements from Voodoo ceremony into the rituals of the Freemasons, and makes other startling, and convincingly visual, connections.

Also in the revisionist vein, Ed Kritcher’s Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (a publisher’s title if there ever was one!), argues a surprising thesis, that the colonization of the New World was largely shaped and driven by the Jews expelled from Spain by Isabella in 1492. As “New Christians” (forced converts from Judaism), they secretly used the explorations to search for new places where the Jewish community could live safely. The book is fully documented with footnotes to sources in the Jamaican and Brazilian archives. I look forward to seeing further research on this topic, a curious chapter in the history of the Atlantic, and the new vision of the part played by the sailors who rejected servitude in the European navies in favor of a rough experiment in democracy, piracy.

Easily the best exhibition I saw this year was “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was truly astonishing, and I can only compare it in its complexity and theatricality to two previous exhibitions at the Costume Institute, the Yves Saint Laurent show of 1983 and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes of 1978. I encourage anyone who is interested in these clothes to watch the runway videos here, rather than just looking at photos. They convey the spatial excitement and drama of the clothes. These are clothes for the imagination, rather than clothes to wear. The collections that will stay with me are those that express McQueen’s preoccupation with the Highland Clearances, a veiled genocide perpetrated by the English upon Scotland, the designer’s ancestral home. Two collections, “Highland Rape” (which introduced the “bumster” pant) and “The Widows of Culloden” show the power of fashion to mount a politico-sexual critique. But lovers of fantasy and science fiction may well be more entranced with the collections “The Girl Who Lived in a Tree,” “Plato’s Atlantis,” and “It’s Only a Game.” The Met’s installation was superb, in terms of pacing, lighting and music, and fittingly theatrical, as the clothing demands.

In film, I discovered a wonderful director, new to me, Rachid Bouchareb. The two films I saw, “Outside the Law” (Hors la Loi) and “Days of Glory” (Indigénes) deal, respectively, with the impact of the Algerian Revolution in France and the experience of Algerian soldiers fighting for France in World War II. If you choose to watch them (and you should!) select the subtitled, rather than the dubbed, version, as the soundtrack is in both French and Arabic, and the interplay between those languages is crucial to the meaning of the film.

Three more very special films: Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, about a 15-year old girl from the British underclass; The Beaches of Agnes Varda, the director’s memoir as seen through the filmic use of seaside world of her childhood, and Marwencol, a documentary about a man who recoups his health after a vicious bias attack by building a war-torn city inhabited by Barbie dolls.

Wendy Walker is the author of a modern masterpiece, The Secret Service, and the formally innovative Blue Fire, A Poetic Nonfiction, and several collections of short fiction, including Knots, which Aqueduct Press publishes in its Conversation Pieces series. Her most recent book is My Man & other Critical Fictions. She is currently at work on "Sexual Stealing," an inquiry into the origins of British Gothic fiction in 18th-century Jamaica and Haiti. 

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