October 2010

Pauls Toutonghi


The Nobel Reprise, Letter 3: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Dear Ben,

You worried that your letter was too much like a lecture -- and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. It seemed like an earnest grappling with some of the questions that we inevitably think of, as parents. For example: What will I say to these beings that are depending on me for some sort of understanding of the meaning inherent in life?

Or the lack of meaning?

And why is this diaper so unbelievably disgusting?

And what is wrong with you -- dear and tiny infant -- that you can be so very cute and so very, very foul?

But really -- this is the part in your letter that immediately snagged my attention: “Is that what life ends up being? Tunnels that lead nowhere except back to a place governed in part by the belief that they lead somewhere?”

That especially felt like something that spoke to the career of the writer. You publish something and it briefly satisfies that feeling, that sense that you’re going down a series of destination-less tunnels. But then a few days pass. And nobody’s emailing you to tell you how brilliant and vital and necessary your work is -- and so the nagging sense of doubt sets in, once again. I can empathize, anyway.

It’s the thing I try to teach my students. If you start, at the age of twenty, searching for validation for your work from the opinions of others -- then at age thirty, your problem is only compounded. Alan Shapiro gave a great lecture about this very thing at Bread Loaf when I was there in 2004; I’ve heard all sorts of rumors about various writers who are frustrated because they haven’t received one award or another. Philip Roth is supposedly miserable (and perhaps rightly so) because he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize.

You said that the role of literature was to “say what is true beyond what is believed, what is observed.” So, then, do you think that literature -- and writing -- somehow offer us a way out of these tunnels? And so -- also, then -- what, exactly, is beyond what is believed, what is observed?

But maybe this is quixotic and naïve, trying to “answer” these questions. Language is too subjective to be pinned down, in this way, isn’t it? But still I think of my friend, the translator Thomas Pruiksma, who just published a translation of the 13th century Tamil poet Avvaiyar, Give, Eat, and Live, with Red Hen Press. He wrote to me just now in a (non-emailed) letter about how he loves poetry more than prose, in part because it points to the unsayable. There is something beyond meaning about poetry. So: Is that what you’re saying, at least in part?

You know, for all his grumpiness, Beckett kept writing and writing. And, for me, there’s something hopeful about that. He seems, to me, to be the most hopeful of writers. There’s something cute about setting a play in a heap of garbage. His blustery embrace of destruction is, at its heart, sort of sweet. Because, after all, to write about a destroyed world is very different than destroying the world, yourself.


For example, today, I read a news story about how coal companies are building more and more old-fashioned, greenhouse-spewing plants -- trying to sneak them in before more stringent regulations are put in place. Have you ever seen a coal strip mine? Now, there -- there is the person who’s really devoid of hope, the person who builds and operated this strip mine. How could they not be? How could they do this to the world and still profess to have hope for the future? Look at what they’re doing to the Earth! Our one and only Earth! The CEO of the strip mining corporation, the shareholders: They are the real nihilists.

But Beckett? Writing a play? Wearing black turtlenecks? Drinking whiskey at noon? How adorable. 

This is starting to sound a little like my letter about The Union Jack.

* * *

You know, I wanted to talk about Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio’s fine novel, Desert. It was issued in 2009 by David R. Godine Publishers. I carried it around for weeks, with its arresting cover. It reminded me of another book I loved, a more rare book that simply is one of the best travel narratives I’ve ever found: Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands.

But Desert. I need to say, quickly, that this will not be a standard review of the book. It will not divulge exactly what the story is about. Let me just say the minimum: It’s set in two places -- the North African desert in 1909-1912, and Marseille in the novel’s present day (roughly 1979). It follows children. Children of various sorts, mostly impoverished, who try to find their way through a difficult world.

So, Ben, it’s beautiful. The book. The desert roars at the center of it; the desert, itself seems to have a pulpy heartbeat, a scorching cold presence in the text. I could feel the desert in the substance of the book that I was carrying around. I stopped many times to reread a sentence, a punishing sentence -- where some element of human brutality or stark nature was displayed, flayed, for me, the reader. Here’s a paragraph from early on:

The sun was still high in the stark sky, sounds and smells were swept away on the wind. Sweat trickled slowly down the faces of the travelers; the dark skin on their cheeks, on their arms and legs, was tinted with indigo. The blue tattoos on the women's foreheads looked like shiny little beetles. Their black eyes, like drops of molten metal, hardly seeing the immense stretch of sand, searched for signs of the trail in the rolling dunes.

I’ve been thinking about what form these letters should take, and I have to admit that I’m not sure. Because certainly I thought a great deal about the political aspects of the text; it functions as a twin indictment of the European armies that invaded North Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century -- and also of capitalism, as an institution.

But I don’t want to write about this, I don’t think. The New York Times review, by Elizabeth Hawes, entitled, “The Price of Colonialism,” does an excellent job of considering these thorny issues, and offers a significant passport into the ideas of the book. Scott Esposito, on his blog, The Critical Flame, has an equally strong review.

And yet I find myself shying away from this format -- the sober-minded reflection on the ideas of a novel. What's interesting, as well (and written about less), are the things that orbit around the experience of reading: The places you read, the circumstances under which you read. I finished this book, for example, in a cabin on McCall Lake, Idaho. I’m always amazed by the physical life that books have -- traveling mutely around the world, from place to place to place.

I took the book, for example, across the western part of the country -- going from Portland, Oregon, to Pendleton, Oregon, to Boise, Idaho, and back. These cities changed for me because I was reading about the slums of 20th-century Morocco. They seemed miraculously clean, for example, but also strange and commercialized. Full of commodities. I thought of the girl, Lalla, the central character in the novel, an orphan. Lalla, who walks across the desert barefoot, who owns nothing, who flees home with a mute shepherd boy when her aunt tries to marry her off to a rich businessman. 

So, I think, Ben, that I’m grappling with the question of reading.

Why are we reading? Why is anyone reading, at all?

When Naman, the old fisherman, dies a lonely, desperate death in the slum -- I have to admit, I was nearly ill. I suddenly hated myself, for some reason, for reading this book. But that makes no sense, of course. What should I be doing with myself, if not reading? (Changing diapers, suggests my wife.)

I guess I worry sometimes that I’m not interested in the kind of systematic, analytical process that other folks bring to the consideration of literature. Books, to me, are not just books. They are creatures, relatives, friends. They are private traveling companions, with whom I have long conversations. I feel them emotionally; I like or dislike them in the way I might like or dislike a stranger at a bar.

But that’s just not very systematic, is it?  

In any case, the translation of Desert strikes me as spectacular. I could piece the French sentences back together from the English sentences, and I could hear the music of Le Clézio's prose. It made me ache for the North African desert, which I’ve only seen one time, ache for its vacant, open, barren spaces.

What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?


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