On Literature, Baba Segi, and Major Pettigrew


Book group leader Jacqueline sent me the tail end of an email exchange she was having with another book group member about Jonathan Franzen’s recent book Freedom.  Jacqueline was less than enthusiastic.  I had heard the buzz about Freedom but I didn’t know anything about it.  Still don’t.  I looked at David Brooks’ 20 Sep 2010 op-ed piece and, setting aside whether anything he said about the book is accurate (which, I took from Jacqueline’s reaction and his adduced support of B. R. Meyers’ October 2010 Atlantic article, it is), I find myself in agreement that an important, larger issue is whether institutionalized pessimism is now a sine qua non of literary lionization.  Too often, it seems, if it ain’t empty or depressing, it ain’t literature.  Tolstoy’s oft-cited declaration that “Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is rhetorically satisfying, but one must not confuse rhetorical felicity with truth.

Even if Tolstoy were right, is Schadenfreude really the best and highest purpose of art and literature?  Is the purpose of literature to encourage the reader in the attitude of Luke’s (18:11) Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like the unhappy family in Anna Karenina or the disaffected characters in Freedom?  I think not.  Art at its best allows us to glimpse, through the eyes of the artist, that which is good in human nature—in ourselves and in others.  Not that authors should aspire to be Pollyannas or Panglosses.  On the contrary.  Sometimes a gem is best appreciated in its contrast to a bleak, black background.

I think, for example, of the two noir-ish mystery series I have recently read–Sieg Larsson’s The Girl with / who … trilogy and John Burdett’s Bangkok books.  Both propose a world that is corrupt and threatening, yes; but they offer the serious consolation that there can be–no, there are–good people to be found; that decency exists; that friendship (and even love) are safe havens that we can and must fight to protect and expand.  This is more than a formulaic Misery with a Happy Ending plot.

Notice that Hollywood is of two minds on this issue.  Sometimes a film is re-shot or re-cut when audience reactions in preview showings suggest that a bleak and hopeless ending may encourage audiences to stay away in droves.  When this happens, there is often juicy byplay about how soulless Hollywood moguls are destroying the artistic integrity of the director.  But tacking an upbeat ending onto an essentially downer plot is a desperation move, not a serious response when the question the rest of the work poses is “Why go on living at all?”

Tragedy as a form seems to work (when it succeeds) because the audience understands the wrong-headedness of the hero and understands that although it is unavoidable for the hero, it is not unavoidable for everyone. So, there is a difference between hopelessness, anomie, and disaffection on the one hand and tragedy on the other.   In essence, tragedy is didactic.  The audience is brought to learn or recognize something positive. 

Traditionally, an artist suffers for his art, but I wonder if that is not just an excuse for artists who want their art to make us suffer as they have or imagine they have.  (Take that, you coddled reader, you!)  A generation of authors acquired the sobriquet “Angry Young Men” (not that it doesn’t occur with women) and took it as a badge of honor, but I was never convinced that anger for the sake of anger is salutary for the artist or the reader.  Sometimes it just makes me tired.

I have just finished two books that satisfied in the way I have proposed: Lola Shoneyin’s (2010) The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Helen Simonson’s (2010) Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.  Neither insists on the purposelessness of existence, the impossibility of integrity, or the frustrations of inchoate morality; yet neither is blind to the vicissitudes of daily life–the one in a polygamous Nigerian family, the other in an uptight English Major (retired) living is a small town in Sussex.  Both deal intelligently with social issues both large and small; both recognize that not everyone is a Good Guy, but they find enough wiggle room in individual interactions to enable some good things to be realized.

Shoneyin’s book is a bit more sociological in its approach–or perhaps it feels that way because I was totally ignorant of even the most general facts of Nigerian society.  The author provides enough context for one to infer the forces and pressures of life in Ibadan and thus understand the motivations of her characters; but the exposition never feels forced or condescending.  I suppose the same is true of Simonson’s book, too.  The mores of rural England are taken for granted and addressed in the text only as they interact with the characters.  If I were unfamiliar with English village life, I think I would still be able to understand and appreciate the story Simonson tells. 

Henry James asked, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? “  He was writing of the human (or anthropomorphic) actors in a tale, but in both Baba Segi and Major Pettigrew the prevailing mores are characters in their own right: the character of the society determining the incidents of the plot; and the incidents of the plot illustrating the character of the society.




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