Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wendell Berry's Detective Novel

(Reflections on A WORLD LOST by Wendell Berry, (2008))

Image from Counterpoint Press edition
The framework for Wendell Berry's A WORLD LOST is that of a detective novel. 

Andy Catlett, fictional chronicler of many of Wendell Berry's fictions of Port William, Kentucky, remembers fondly the uncle Andrew for whom he was named, and the afternoon when he learned that Uncle Andrew had been shot to death.  Very young at the time, he accepted the family's line about a disagreement over a job. As an older man, he searches scraps of memory and artifacts to piece together what really happened.

The book hardly proceeds in a linear fashion.  Andy admits that his childhood memories are like the "illuminated capital letters" at the starts of chapters in a children's book -- recalled apart from each other, without supporting detail. 

Now, I read the book a few months ago, and enjoyed it, but I don't remember the answers to Andy's questions.   Who killed Uncle Andrew?  Had he propositioned a man's underage daughter -- or was that just an excuse, or a rumor?  I don't recall.   But then, I rarely do recall the solutions to mystery novels. 

What I do recall is the character of the uncle, and it's clear that he was trouble waiting to happen.  Isn't it Hercule Poirot who says that you find out more about the killing by finding out more about the victim?

Uncle Andrew "overflows" attempts by his well-meaning parents and brother to inhibit him.  Andy recalls with a mixture of shock and pleasure how this uncle "infused with glandular intensity" the seven-year-old boy's shy daydream about a girl.  The boy is bewildered, and yet "pleased to be carried away on the big stream of his laughter."

His uncle "carries uproar with him wherever he goes." Flirtatious, given to excesses of drink, wildly impulsive, he's dangerous.  Once some cocky teenage boys step into the road to force him to stop and offer them a ride, but he simply accelerates, chasing them off the road and then up the bank.

Naturally, a novel that probes death and memory turns into a rumination on mortality.  Like mystery novelist Walter Mozley, Berry tells us through Andy that "life does not begin with itself," and it carries on after life ends: Home is not a place, but "also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day...."

Not Who You Are, But What You Serve: Two Novels by Wendell Berry

(Reflections on NATHAN COULTER (2008) and MEMORY OF OLD JACK (1974 and 1999) by Wendell Berry.)

Just when I was thinking that the people of Wendell Berry's community of Port William were too noble to be true, along comes this fictional memoir by "Nathan"  (son of Jarrad, nephew of my favorite character Burley).  It's full of people behaving badly, irascibly, cruelly, even dirtily.

The novel begins in a boy's dream of a lion with his Grampa's blue eyes, crouched and roaring outside their family home.  By the end of the novel, the boy is in his teens.  The story in between contains sordid episodes including a long sequence at an ugly carnival side show.  But the action is the way that Uncle Burley and others step up to take care of Nathan when his mother dies and the grief-stricken and angry father Jarrad fall away. The older brother, called "Brother" early on, also withdraws.  This is the Tom Coulter who will perish in the Second World War.   Nathan, we know, will go on to marry Hannah, and thereby hangs another novel.

In fact, I understand that NATHAN COULTER was Berry's first novel, and that the rest of the Port William world formed around it.

MEMORY OF OLD JACK is more complicated.  Like Updike's SEEK MY FACE, and also like a couple of wonderful stories by Berry, this novel moves forward on two tracks.  We follow old Jack Beecham in present time, from his waking in a chair at a window, before sunrise, to his return to that chair at darkness.  As he walks haltingly from the store to the barber shop and through the town that day, his mind wanders from turning point to turning point in his memory, from early memories of men going off to the Civil War onward to the day that his closest family members convince him to retire at a "hotel" in town.  We sometimes see Old Jack through the eyes of  characters who love him: Mat Feltner (second oldest man in the community) and Wheeler Catlett. 

Among Berry's characters, Jack is oldest and far from wisest.  But he comes to learn, by marrying the wrong woman and by mistakes that put him in deep debt, that distinction in life comes "not by what he was or anything that he might become but by what he served."  Berry means, the land, but also the community of those who serve the land.

Berry often links Jack's inner world to the natural one.  As a young man, Jack reins in a powerful horse...
And Jack feels that same checked and conserved abundance in himself, his shoulders pressing againstthe good broadcloth of his suit.  The whole country around him, in fact, is full of it, the abounding of energy and desire...
At church, in the company of girls and young women.
His consciousness hovers and moves now over the congregation, like a bee over a patch of flowers, in search of nectar, alert to what is bright and sweet and open. 
Much later, his fury reflects that of a stream in flash flood, and he recklessly drives his team of mules into the raging water -- a scene that one reads breathlessly.

In his marriage to a woman who shares the beliefs of the prevailing culture that all of civilization should be about acquiring the means to rise above hard work, Jack comes to embody the plight of Port William as a last stand against the engulfing commercial world.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

We Loves You, Porgy

(reflections on the March 4 performance of PORGY and BESS by George Gershwin, with libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, produced by the Altanta Opera Company. Also reflection on Pierre Ruhes' review and comments at Arts Critic Atlanta.)

photo from
Atlanta Opera Company's recent PORGY AND BESS dispelled the doubts I'd had about the work going into it. I'd always felt that Gershwin and his collaborators overstuffed its two acts with melodies and incidents and lost their focus. This was the line recently taken by Atlanta Critic Pierre Ruhe.

But this production made clear the opera's sharp focus on opposites in the world of Catfish Row, richly underscored by contrasts in Gershwin's music: upright religion versus underworld sensuality, gospel versus jazz, "Doctor Jesus" versus Sportin' Life, women versus men, town versus country, work versus release. In two amusing episodes, there'a also white versus black: whites cynical, bullying, speaking their terse lines; blacks wary, submissive, singing their responses.

Gershwin's music establishes a chiaroscuro design. In just the first couple of minutes, Gershwin opposes the pounding piano of the dance hall against the fond yearnings of hope and religious faith in "Summertime." The mother's dreamy lullabye contrasts minutes later to the father's mocking one. Men roll dice to a quirky, percussive music that pervades the act, and Gershwin eventually layers the strains of "Summertime" over the gambling music as the first scene reaches its climax.

Porgy is the fulcrum of the structure. His music sets him apart. Calls of "here comes Porgy" and a swelling of good feeling with lively music mark the crippled man's entrance on his little pallet with wheels. The stage is crowded with the men who are gambling, and the women who are disapproving, and the merchants selling their wares. Porgy is asking about Bess, consort of the thug Crown, and someone asks if he's "soft on Bess." Porgy replies, "No, no, brudder, Porgy ain't sof' on no woman," and then all action on stage is suspended as Porgy begins this odd and wonderful little piece:

They pass by singin', they pass by cryin', always lookin'.

They look in my do' an' they keep on movin'.
When Gawd make cripple, He mean him to be lonely.

Night time, day time, He got to trabble dat lonesome road.

Night time, day time, He got to trabble dat lonesome road.

It's not a full-fledged song, and it's not recitative. Up to the word "movin'," it's a series of short phrases that rise and fall, interrupted by harsh orchestral echoes of the two-syallable words "singin'" and "cryin'." They sound like alarm bells. Then the line soars from "God" to "lonely," before falling back to the mournful repeated lines.

Then action resumes, a story of how Porgy comes to be Bess's protector, and he grows into full life at last.

Bess teeters between the opposites of this world, rejected by the righteous women, abused by the criminal men. Caring for Porgy and for the orphaned child of Clara, she gains some measure of self-respect and sympathy from the audience. Then a snort of "happy dust" is all it takes for her to abandon all to follow Sportin' Life to New York, where she'll likely be merchandise for Sportin' Life's new line of work.

If we try to see the opera as a love story between Porgy and Bess, we'll be disappointed. Porgy's caring for Bess is just the expression of a faith (not a religion) that matters to the opera's creators.

Porgy -- with Jake and Clara -- marks the sweet spot between the cruel self-righteous religion of the women and the cruel self-absorbed hedonism of Crown and Sportin' Life. His faith is naive in its beliefs, but it is also a source for true courage and goodness.

This production was noted nation-wide for its use of luminous photographic projections on two vast frames. These allowed action to shift in an instant from Catfish Row in the shadows of Charleston's fine old homes, to the shuttered interior of the church, to the lush green Kittiwa Island. Video footage of a hurricane illustrated Gershwin's evocative storm music.

It may have been the uncluttered stage that helped make clear Gershwin's intentions in this production in a way that other productions I've seen have failed to do.