Wednesday, August 25, 2010

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, 2010.

Orito, a character in this riveting and sprawling novel from David Mitchell, suggests that we cannot live without stories: “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories.” Perhaps it’s because I agree so completely that I love this new book; perhaps it’s because I agree that I am one of legion who think Mitchell is the greatest living writer in English. (There is no one else from whom a new book would ensure me being at the bookstore the day of its release.) This novel is well worth reading, and I encourage you to spend time in its world.

Its world is that of Dejima, an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. Here the employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) live and work, forbidden from actually landing on the soil of Japan itself because of its strict policy of isolation at the dawn of the nineteen century, far from both the Netherlands and the VOC headquarters at Batavia (now Jakarta). To conniving, whoring, drinking, scheming, and defrauding that marks Dejima’s occupants comes the young and devout clerk Jacob De Zoet. Tasked first with identifying the corruption, Jacob is not in a position to make friends: he is determined merely to survive his five years and return to Holland to marry the girl he loves.

The island swarms with Japanese inspectors and translators, and much of the first section of the book details both daily life on the island and the diplomatic posturing between the VOC and the Edo magistracy in Nagasaki. Jacob is caught up in the intrigue of his superiors and by his own crush on an unobtainable young Japanese woman, Orito, who is apprenticed as a midwife to the Dutch doctor Marinus. The writing is lush: it is both cinematic in sweep and playful with the words themselves. There’s a marvellous set-piece, early on, in which Jacob chases a monkey who has stolen a leg from the surgeon through a warehouse; if you’re not at once laughing with mirth and astonished at Mitchell’s writing, then this book is not for you.

The second part of the book revolves around Orito’s life once relegated by her stepmother to an isolated monastery of stunning and revolting depravity. I found the shift startling as I read the book; yet in retrospect, it works well both to further the plot and to develop the ideas of isolation and of faith and scientific development with which Mitchell is playing. This portion of the book is deeply disturbing, and I found it challenging to read because of my emotional involvement in Orito and her would-be rescuer.

In the final portion, we (mostly) return to Dejima, now threatened by a British warship whose captain seeks to oust the Dutch and to establish trading relations with the Japanese (inspired by an historical incident). With echoes of Patrick O’Brian, we readers follow the events that are simultaneously inevitable and surprising. I rushed on to the end, reading until well past two—unready to leave the world of the novel and unwilling its end.

Near the end of the book is a set piece I have to share, so evocative and poetic is its writing:

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and aging rakes by other men’s wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gatekeepers; beekeepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cutpurses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night's rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

One could enumerate the various ways Mitchell brings the reader to consider the nature of isolation, from islands to language to social positions to the very idea of the foreign and so many more. This concern is central in my reading of Mitchell: consider any of the various narrators in Cloud Atlas, or Jason Tyler in Black Swan Green. I’m looking forward to rereading Thousand Autumns in a year or so to see if I can pin down some of my own thoughts on what Mitchell is accomplishing with this recurrent motif. It’s more developed, in this novel; it feels more visceral than it does in the recent past of Black Swan Green or the dystopian futures of Cloud Atlas, as if better capturing the malaise so endemic to contemporary life precisely because of the historical setting.

There’s another point upon which I offer only the briefest of comments, and cite a quotation and an event from the novel. While at times seemingly opposing faith and science, there’s a deep reverence and faithfulness that is staggering. “Hell is hell because, there, evil passes unremarked upon.” Nearing the end of the novel, facing the canon, as Jacob and Dr. Marinus together recite a psalm, I nearly wept.

This book also revolves around artistry. One might think Mitchell a devotee of Frye, when De Zoet answers the magistrate’s questions about Greek myths by saying that the “truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not in its words but its patterns.” (In and of itself, this line should be a sharp rebuke to some reviewers who have worried over anachronisms rather than engaging the story.) The patterns of this book are recognisable, unexpected in the encounter but not in reflection. To offer just one other example of the lingering concern for art Mitchell interweaves into the story, in a disturbing setting and moment of the story, a monk remarks that “Storytellers are not priests who commune with an ethereal realm but artisans, like dimpling makers, if somewhat slower” (perhaps warning us not to expect Mitchell’s next novel in the very near future). As Mitchell considers memory and experience, how we frame and create stories (and our deep, deep need for them), one could read the book as a manifesto about art

I hope you enjoy the novel; I hope you become one of the legion who marvel at Mitchell’s writing. “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories.” May you leave the novel with cravings well satiated.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Julian Barnes, England, England!, 1998.

I reread this novel by Barnes for reasons I cannot clearly explain: sometimes books on the shelves issue calls of loneliness that work their way subliminally to my impulses, asking me to return to worlds and characters and ideas that have grown only faintly familiar. I first read this book in graduate school, when it was recommended to us by the prof for whom I was TA-ing after a discussion on Baudrillard. He suggested—accurately, to my mind—that it would give the reader Baudrillard’s ideas without the lack of fun that accompanies reading Baudrillard (see Browning’s “Development” for a better expression of why this system is actually good pedagogy).

I remembered England, England! as a funny book, one that played with what England was while exploring the idea of the simulacrum and our own living with simulacra. What I didn’t remember was the anger, the ire more akin to a Juvenalian satire than to the Menippean satire I remembered. The plot revolves around a plan to turn the Isle of Wight into a tourist destination: all of the great historical events and places of England will be recreated in better ways, perfect for the quick and unthreatening encounter with history by monied tourists. The structure of the novel is somewhat awkward. The first segment recounts the development of the idea, dominated by the eccentric and forceful billionaire behind the project. The second relates his ouster and the running of England, England!—and the challenges that ensue: the smugglers start smuggling, Robin Hood is mad that Maid Marian won’t put out, and no one actually enjoys with a Dr. Johnson more remarkable for his depression than his witty aperçus, with a host of similar problems to accompany the aforementioned. The new CEO, a woman we readers got to know and like in both the prologue and the first part of the book, struggles both with how to solve the problems and with her own philosophical musings about what the immersion in the milieu is doing to the humans who are coming to over-identify the parts they play. (This latter concern expresses something I often wonder about: what must it do to actors to play roles like Iago day in and day out?) The final segment deals with her life after her own ouster and exile, a return to England (now Anglia) now depressed and restored to an agrarian pastoral idyll that itself is a simulacrum.

It’s in the final segment that the writing finds a balance that I think works; the satire is less angry but still omnipresent, as the villagers re-invent a fair that never-was but is as-they-imagine-it was—England, England! come to England, without the residents paid or paying for the privilege.

The book is not my favourite of Barnes’ oeuvre. It lacks the balance of Flaubert’s Parrot and the staying power of Talking It Over, or the genius of the brilliant A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. The exposition of the theories of Baudrillard, both by the French theorist and by Dr. Max, does not read like a theory lesson but does genuinely engage the reader at the level of story. I enjoyed rereading it, and am left wondering about the rage I perceive in it. Thoughts?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Andrew Burnham, Heaven and Earth in Little Space: The Re-enchantment of Liturgy, 2010.

The state of the liturgy isn’t what it should be, argues Bishop Andrew Burnham in this new book. I came to read this book after reading Dr. Martin Davie’s review, posted on Bishop David Hamid’s blog in April. In what is a collection of six essays looking at different expressions of the same theme, Burnham tries to describe what has been lost and what renewal might look like from a committed Anglo-Catholic perspective. Variable in quality, the book is often highly technical and of interest principally to liturgical scholars rather than the general reader; moreover, the examples of contemporary Anglican liturgy are necessarily limited to the Church of England. While fascinating and erudite, I have trouble accepting one of Burnham’s underlying premises, that the decline in church attendance over the past few decades is attributable to either simplification of liturgy or attenuation of Catholic principles. Correlation is not the same thing as causation.

The first essay shows that the rites of the Church of England are essentially reformed in character, and not catholic. Burnham traces the development and evolution of both the Eucharist and the offices (the former in much greater detail), and makes a convincing argument. One of the points in this piece recurs in various forms throughout the other essays. He argues that while recent reforms have made the surface view of the rites look more catholic, the wide variability and choice permitted in their enactment force the worshipper to have what is a reformed experience. This argument is suspect, to my mind: here, as throughout the book, Burnham returns to asserting that the only possible identification of something as Catholic is a continuity with long-standing uses so deep as to prevent the possibility of any meaningful inculturation or development. I have trouble differentiating his view from a celebration of stasis, or at least of change so minimal and glacial as to be unidentifiable as renewal. (It’s hard to see how Burnham and George Guiver might ever agree on these points, and I find Guiver far more persuasive: see Guiver's Vision Upon Vision: Processes of Change and Renewal in Christian Worship.) Catholicism is not stasis; if our faith is alive, its expression in worship will change over time. Certainly it will always value and celebrate tradition, but to quote the old saw, tradition lies in handing over the flame, not praying over the ashes.

The second essay is an interesting assessment of the state of the two rites of the Eucharist currently in widespread use in the Roman Catholic church.

In his third essay, “Fast or Feast,” Burnham advocates strongly for the renewal of the rhythms of the church’s year. Here he varies between a tedious lament of the waning influence of Christianity on the lives of the general public—and their eating and drinking habits—and a forceful argument that reminds the reader of the distinction between chronos and kairos, an argument that the church would do well to remember.

The fourth essay engages the role of music in the liturgy, and makes a number of conservative assertions and arguments. While not wrong about why contemporary music so often fails to work well at creating or supporting certain moods important to solemn celebrations, the lament reads as cranky and overly conservative, rather than constructive.

In discussing the divine office in the fifth essay, “Town and Country,” Burnham is at his most effective. While I don’t agree with a number of his suggestions, nor his deep concern to restrict options, his argument that modern office forms need to balance and support both corporate and individual efforts to pray the office is compelling. (I have less sympathy for what he misses from the pre-conciliar breviary and the 1911 cursus, and more for a richer use of psalmody.)

I am still unsure what to make of the final essay on Mary. I agree whole-heartedly with his argument, following the Council of Ephesus of 431, that “there is no adequate Christology without an adequate Mariology” (196). Yet he reaches this point by tracing developments and expressions of the hyperdulia owed Mary, and I struggle with the assertion that “If lay folk paused at morning, noon, and night for the Angelus, if the Rosary became part of the daily rhythm of prayer, and if the Marian antiphon at the end of the day were to become once more a nocturnal habit, Christian daily life would again be Christocentric...” (196). The devotions to which he refers, while valuable and appropriate for some, are an expression of faith; they’re not essential. To quote another adage, all may, none must, and some should. I’m not sure they’re indicative of a Christocentric life, so much as merely a certain devotional strand; given Burnham’s concern in this sentence for laity, I’d be willing to agree if the rest of their lives manifested devotion for Christ translated into action and ministry. Despite this quibble, I learned some intriguing things both about Anglican devotion to Mary, and was able to make better sense of my own Mariology.

Despite my issues and disagreements with Burnham, I was glad to have read the book; I look forward to sharing it with a number of other people who might be intrigued by his points.