Meanwhile Hugo Claus' brilliant novel Wonder, would actually be a little long in the tooth for the front list claim, being that it was published in the halfway through 2009.
Still, the new anniversary edition of Middleton A. Harris (compiled and edited by Toni Morrison) landmark "scrapbook" coincides with a current affair (Black History Month) and so it almost could have fit a little better into that "Back List" designation.
I promise not to do this to you again. That business put aside, let's get to it.
From The Front List
The Black Book - 35th Anniversary Edition. Edited by Middleton A. Harris with the assistance of Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, Ernest Smith, and Toni Morrison. Foreword by Toni Morrison. Random House. U.S. History / African American History. Hardcover. ISBN: 9781400068487. $35.
On my way back from Ashtabula this last Sunday I stopped at one of those many micro-purgatories that inhabit the exit ramps of the American highway. This one was around Harrisburg and boasted an Old Country Buffet, which I did not eat at.
In the bathroom however there was a selection of typical graffiti. A penis complete with hairy ball-sack. A phone number offering oral sex. A four-letter word alternatively rendered via scratching instead of a felt marker. And then a pair of more disturbing messages.
"Obama is a dumb niggly."
Two vile sentiments that are increasingly run-of-the-mill for bathroom graffiti for roadside service centers. Are they increasing because Obama is doing a bad job? I find that hard to believe as job losses have decreased under Obama and only the comically uninformed would blame Obama for the record levels of foreign held debt he inherited from George W. Bush. Plus the assassination of the President of the United States is a heinous subject to joke about, even if that joke is limited to the rest stop bathroom or Fox News.
So while political affiliations may underlie this call for murder, it is without a doubt more of an issue of race than political philosophy. So while the election of Barack Obama may have signaled the beginning of a new era of race acceptance in the US, it also served as a cannon shot on the Mississippi, bringing the reality to the surface.
Racism is alive and well. And sadly that's no real shocker.
One of the things I've heard Toni Morrison say about the idea behind Random House's decision to publish her assemblage of the provocative collection of scraps, photographs, news clippings and post cards that comprises The Black Book was a need to create a publication that would reach a larger African-American audience. The Black Book of Middleton A. Harris' unbelievable collection of ephemera sidestepped academic dryness or political heavy handedness. It was history fragmented, primary, and in this sense unbelievably and powerfully accessible.
The book is disturbing to behold. Pictures of lynchings, burnings and hangings are interred in The Black Book's pages and they are gruesome to behold. One unnerving two page spread is from the August 18th, 1911 edition Coatesville Record of Coatesville, PA. The front page article is concerned with the lynching and burning of a "colored man" accused of killing a cop. The two pages are disturbing enough but as I live near enough to Coatesville I can add an additional story. Less than a hundred years later, just last year, two white men were arrested for a series of racially motivated house fires that had nearly everyone in Coatesville living in fear for several months.
Many of the tragic stories on display in this singular of history books have that doubly haunting effect of finding modern day brethren amongst our headlines. The Black Book is not a work of misery alone. There are many bright stories in there as well.
The anti-aircraft gun, the mechanization of shoe production, street sweeper, lanterns, typewriters and all kinds of amazing invention patents also grace the pages. There are the visionary musicians, inventing nearly every facet of what we now call popular culture. The heroics of the negro leagues and titanic struggles of men like boxer Jack Johnson.
It's all here. On one page there is a triumph and the next a horrible occurrence. Flip to the middle and you'll find a profile of men like Frederick Douglas. Flip a few more pages and you'll arrive at humiliating advertisements using nappy headed pickininnies and comical black musicians tripping on their own feet to get at a box of corn meal.
Without a doubt, regardless of your ethnic composition, the story of the black American is the most frustrating one we have in the US. So full of triumphs. So riddled with despair.
Included in the new edition is a letter that Toni Morrison received after the original publication of the book in 1972. It is from a man in prison, which was a form of letter Morrison apparently has received her whole life. Instead of the usual requests for money or freedom this man asked for two copies of the book.
In Morrison's foreword she quotes him:
Dear Mrs. Morrison, someone sent me a copy of "The Black Book." And if at all possible, I would like to have two more. I need one copy to give to a friend, another to throw against the wall over and over and over. The one I already own I want to hold in my arms against my heart.
That is it. That describes this very important book about American history.
From The Back List
Wonder by Hugo Claus. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. Fiction. Archipelago Books. Trade Paperback. 338 pp. ISBN: 9780980033014. $15.
Yes, it was published somewhat long ago, back in May of 2009, but since it has been shortlisted for Three Percent's "Best Translated Book Award of 2010" and because I just finished reading it (the real reason) it lands itself here on the DA's humble Back List selection.
This was the first and certainly (I hope) not to be the last time I have read anything by Claus. Hugo Maurice Julien Claus, according to nearly every accounting, is considered the greatest of Flemish authors, not to mention the greatest writer in the Dutch language's history.
Claus was a prolific writer, composing over a thousand pages of poetry, twenty novels and sixty plays let alone essays, translations and librettos. Of these works it is Wonder and The Sorrow Of Belgium that are considered among his best.
Wonder is a somewhat challenging book that forces the reader to enter through a series of chapters engaged in a stream of consciousness mode reminiscent of Joyce's Ulysses. From these first few chapters a sort of rhythm emerges and more conventional modes of writing come somewhat as relief. Even in the somewhat obscure opening pages, Wonder maintains its most defining trait, which is a sense of humor that would have Kafka giddy with laughter.
Wonder is essentially a novel about fascism and its psychological impact on the human being. This is also to say that it is a novel concerning a damaged sort of humanity and all the psychosis this entails. Claus' melancholic satire takes aim at both the culture of fascism in Belgium during World War II and its visible descendants twenty years after the war. Claus brilliantly conjures what is best described as the modern day (Claus' 1960s) atavism of NAZI ethos. The brilliant part is what makes this book a joy to read and cumbersome to describe.
Claus' hapless but intelligent protagonist is Victor de Rijckel, a schoolteacher. Victor is clearly mentally unstable and, lucky for us, also the supposed author of the book we are reading. He is not however an unreliable source. Despite the revelation that Rijckel is penning his book from the confines of a madhouse, the reader should still believe his story. There is something intrinsic in de Rijckel's Belgium. Whether in the eternal collaboration of big business (in his case Haakebeen's Lumber and Furniture Center) with the powers that be (NAZI or foreign occupying) or the echoes of a fascistic sense of inherited destiny espoused by Victor's Principal, Claus' world relates to ours with disturbing ease.
The story itself sums up easily, if somewhat absurdly. Victor, a teacher who has been divorced by a student whom he married, meets a remarkable beauty at the town's annual costumed ball, which is named The White Rabbit Ball. He follows her and her male suitors to the sea, where, following an antisemitic outburst, she drives off leaving the suitors to ponder her existence. In short order, and with the assistance of his very own Sancho Panza manifested in an impish boy from the school he teaches at, de Rijckel learns the whereabouts and seeks out this mysterious woman.
I wondered about the ball's name to some degree, as the theme of madness and an increasingly lurid adventure full of fearful tyrants and bizarre benefactors aligns well with that other rabbit hole induced fantasy, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland.
The boy has knowledge of this beauty's whereabouts and leads Victor to a village in the countryside. Naturally the villagers find it suspicious that this grown man is traveling with a boy so clearly unrelated to him. This of course leads to some of the more off-color humor in the book, which usually centers around the sexual escapades of Victor, who is no lover of boys but instead prefers very young girls.
His quest for the woman (girl) takes him to a castle in the countryside where he, again hapless, gets tangled up with a cadre of surviving Flemish NAZIs and in order to maintain his proximity to the object of his quest poses as an expert on their lost, yet believed to be alive, leader. It is in these passages that the heart of fascism is plumbed, in particular the religious strain that inhabited Flanders during the war years. It is less pro-German than it is a call to righteous battle issues from the pulpit against communism. In that "righteousness" much evil could/would be done.
What amazes me the most about this book is the author's ability to connect the dots. At the source of the bygone World War's evils, manifest in the castle's congregation, the threads of influence on other characters like the principal, the villagers, the two young lovers in Victor's life and the Flemish culture itself emerge. It is an amazing study of the influence of history on modernity. In another sense it opens up the reader to the reality that Victor, who fought in World War II, is mentally ill because of the war.
There is almost too much to discuss in this book. Stylistically Claus is meticulous, selecting by hand his verbiage for each chapter. In the chapter describing the Lumber Yard he plies the reader with acronyms and the supposedly common sense language of deals done right. When writing of the mysterious leader of the castle's cadre, Claus' language takes on the tone of mythic tradition and national pride. When discussing the two young women of the novel his tone changes entirely. In his ex-wife there is the new fascism of her obsessive love of western popular culture mixed with the old definition of masculine and feminine archetypes from the war years. In the mistress of the castle, there is the dichotomy of a woman seeking to be an exemplary love of the lost fascist leader, a sort of Venus in furs done up with a swastika beret, and young girl whose whole identity has been defined by the men she has been forced to worship.
The book's most comically sad moment comes when she spontaneously fellates Victor in the front seat of her purple sports car, both of them taken aback and left unfulfilled.
The title, Wonder, captures the cruel humor of this masterpiece. Why? of course, is what follows in wonder's wake. Or maybe it's the other way around.
People Behind The Books
Middleton A. Harris
Michael Henry Heim