Thursday, 20 September 2012
The book kicks off in 1945 when the cousins Nick and Helena's ways are parted with the end of the war. Nick is to be reunited with her husband Hughes who fought in the war, and Helena is off to Hollywood to marry her new husband Avery. But the honeymoon period is short-lived. Nick finds herself whiling away the days in the choking Florida heat, waiting for her husband who she now longer feels she knows. And Helena quickly wakes up to a reality where her new husband's attentions are focused on his "life project". In a year, both woman are pregnant. And as the years pass by, the cousins reunite in New England at Tiger House. But one summer the children Daisy and Ed witness something that will change all their lives forever.
I love the structure of the book. We start off with Nick as the focalizer, and we get her perspective from her life as a bored housewife who aches for her husband's attention and gets a kick out of flaunting her tiny bathing suit in front of her neighbours. One day an incident occurs, and Hughes finally decides they should move back to New England.
After Nick, we have skipped forwards in time to 1959 when Nick's daughter Daisy is 12. Daisy and Nick, Helena and Ed are all at Tiger House for the summer. Daisy is obsessing with her tennis, but she's also falling in love for the first time with Tyler Pierce. Though Daisy finds her cousin Ed strange, she's easily persuaded when he asks her to come spying with him, and through their eavesdropping, we get suggestions as to what is going on under the surface in the relationships between the adults. The tension is thick in the air, and we quickly realize that all is not how it should be. This turns out to be the summer that will change everything for the kids, and the consequences will be fatal.
We skip forwards in time to 1967 and another summer at Tiger House. The focalizer is Helena, and through her flashbacks we learn about her early days of marriage and how she discovered she was stuck with her Hollywood husband who devouted all his time and money to his "project". When she fell pregnant with Ed, Helena started hoping for a better life. But Ed turned out to be a lot like his father, always conducting "research" and not really getting along with other kids. The only one who seemed to like Ed was Daisy, who is now engaged to Tyler Pierce. But Helena is anything but happy for them, and we learn that she's nurtured a growing resentment towards her cousin Nick. The tension in the novel keeps growing and we know that a disaster is about to happen.
The next focalizer is Hughes. His story skips between the war and until the present time of the story. We meet a man who feels that he's made a mess of things but is unable to make it right. His own mistakes cripple him from confronting others', and despite having dark suspicions about certain people, he is unable to do anything concrete about it. But Hughes really tries. Through Hughes' perspective some light is shed on certain occurrences, and we're starting to form a fuller picture of everything that's going on under the surface in Tiger House.
Fittingly, the last focalizer is the ever silent and unnerving Ed. Ironically, in his segment Ed is unable to speak. But he is still able to reveal what is going on behind his blank facial expressions. The build-up is perfect, and until the very last pages we are holding our breaths for fear of what will happen. The tension is so high-strung you can feel it in the air of the house. And Ed's distanced way of seeing things keeps us on the edge until the very last.
Klaussmann has written an almost perfect novel. "Almost" because I want her to keep doing it. I love the retro nostalgia of the setting, the nod to The Great Gatsby, the skips in focalizer which keeps the tension, the perfectly timed revelations of past incidences, the fullness and complexities of the characters, which seem to add dimensions with each person's point of view... It is simply put one of those really good novels that I'll recommend to ANYONE.
Finally I want to make a comment about the title, which I did not know came from the Wallace Steven's poem "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock". The title is taken directly from the poem, and Klaussmann was inspired by the poem to write the book. The poem juxtaposes the ordinary vs. the extraordinary, and lack of imagination vs. a vivid imagination. I find this resonates well within the novel in several ways, and one could easily write an article exploring this. I would just like to say that Nick constantly strives for the extraordinary within her life as a "housewife". She wants to break free of her "place", but that does not always turn out for the best. I also feel that the poem suggests that everything is not always how it seems on the surface, and this is very true for Tiger House.
Read it and see the tigers prowling around the house at night, preying on each other.
Philida opens with the slave woman Philida walking all the way to Stellenboch to file a complaint against her master's son, a Francois Brink. Four kids have come from their union, but the main problem is that Francois promised Philida her freedom in exchange for her body. Now that Francois is being pushed into a favourable marriage by his parents, Philida's prospects are suddenly bleak. But come hell or high water, Philida refuses to see her dream of freedom shattered.
Set around the same time as In the Heart of the Country by J M Coetzee, I can't help but make some connections between the two stories. Both novels focus on a female isolated character. But the racial, and in other words, social differences also makes their choices different. Ironically, whereas Magda in In the Heart of the Country wants to escape her isolation and desperation through words and fiction, Philida can settle for nothing less than freedom. She wants to have the freedom to say "this I will do, and this I will not do". She wants to exert herself to proclaim her own freedom. Magda sees herself trapped within a male hierarchy, but can only escape it through imagined patricide. Philida defies her "place" and confronts her suppressors head on.
There is a lot of walking in the book. I cannot help but draw lines to the metaphorical 'long walk to freedom. Philida walks to Stellenboch and back, to Cape Town, and finally, her last trek to the Gariep, which is a kind of promised land for slaves. In her journey of discovery, Philida comes to find herself, the muslim faith, and she realizes how she can be free. Philida is becoming a real pilgrim.
An added dimension in this story is that we do not only see Philida's viewpoint, but also Francois' and his father's. Even though our sympathies remain with Philida, we are reminded that each story has more than one side, and that slavery makes slaves of us all - including the 'baas'.
Philida is a beautifully written novel which I enjoyed immensely. Philida truly comes to life and is an intriguing and complex character. I haven't really read any books addressing slavery in SA before, so this was educational for me. I'm not sure I think it deserves a Man Booker prize, but it definitely deserves a large readership.
Friday, 7 September 2012
What I find extremely inviting about this novel is not only Banville's excellent prose and his meticulous choice of words, but also the fact that he seems to draw inspiration from two of my favourite authors, Paul Auster and J M Coetzee. If Auster and Coetzee's imaginative powers had a baby, the baby might come out as this novel. Both Auster and Coetzee's novels are often very metafictional, and especially the story set in the present tense of Ancient Light have some interesting metafictional traits. Alex has been offered a role in a movie, to play the elusive Alex Vander, whose identity was stolen after his death. The man who pretended to be Alex Vander was then as much of an actor as Alex Cleave. And in his remembrance of the past, it seems that Alex Cleave is inventing the past as much as the fake Alex Vander did. In playing Vander, he is becoming Vander; "...his usurper stepping seamlessly into his place and walking on, into the future, and overtaking me, who will presently in turn become a sort of him, another insubstantial link in the chain of impersonation and deceit" (p. 82).
Everyone involved in the movie production have strangely fictional names. Marcy Meriwether, Toby Taggart, Dawn Devonport and Billie Stryker all have a melodious but artificial quality which made me question if Alex was making them all up, or if they were somehow a figment of his imagination. And when Alex discovers that Alex Vander was in Portovenere, the Italian town where his daughter died, at the same time she was, I really start to question how everything is connected. It is almost an Austerian detective plot.
As mentioned above, the story happens on three time levels. Alex at 15 involved in an almost incestuous relationship with his best friend's mother; the time when his daughter committed suicide and the autopsy revealed that she was pregnant, while her personal notes revealed that a certain Svidrigailov was somehow involved; and now, Alex making his movie debut playing a man who pretended to be someone else. The great star Dawn Devonport has the female lead, playing Vander's much younger love interest. There is always a sexualized mother/son or father/daughter relationship involved in all, and in Dawn Devonport's case, she and Alex symbolically become surrogates for one another.
The title is mentioned a few times in the book. At one point it is referred to as a woman's right to have a window through which some piece of sky will be visible at the far end of the room. This I can only read as symbolizing hope and freedom. Was Mrs Gray's choice to have an affair with a boy her claim to the right of 'ancient light'? Later a different notion of the concept is brought up: "Now he was speaking of the ancient light of galaxies that travels for a million - a billion - a trillion! - miles to reach us. ...and so it is that everywhere we look, everywhere, we are looking into the past" (p.172). Cleave is looking into the past of his youth, to an unresolved event that seems to have kicked off his acting, as well as the death of his daughter, which might never be resolved.
Grief is a strong theme in the novel. Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the protagonist of Ancient Light cannot be reconciled to the fate of his child, and he feels forced to hang on to his grief: "to lay down the burden for the merest moment, would be to lose her with a finality that would have seemed more final than death itself" (p.140).
Ancient Light is a novel that deserves to be read in depth, to be lectured over, have theses written about it, and be compared and contrasted with author x,y and z. Unfortunately I have time only to scratch the surface and catch a hint of what it is about. It is without a doubt an excellent piece of literature, and it is when reading books like this that I really miss studying literature. Greater than The Sea, Ancient Light is a novel with sparks of excellent scattered throughout.