The anguish of My Son’s Story

My Son’s Story

By Nadine Gordimer

W.W. Norton

The book My Son’s Story is a white South African’s — Nadine Gordimer’s — description of the life of a black family in South Africa.

Gordimer’s protagonist is Sonny, a schoolteacher from a segregated “coloured” township, who becomes a political activist. Sonny is married to Aila and has both a daughter named Baby and a son named William. Sonny eventually goes to jail because of his subversive affiliations; when he is released, he is regarded as a hero in his community and once again becomes involved, both in the movement and with an activist named Hannah Plowman.

His infidelity affects everyone in the family. Will is the first family member to discover that his father is having an affair with Plowman, a white woman committed to liberating Blacks from apartheid. His knowledge of the affair forces an uncomfortable intimacy with his father. He seems to understand, on a very shallow level, the reasons for his father’s infidelity:

Of course she is blonde. The wet
dreams I have, a schoolboy who’s never
slept with a woman, are blonde. It’s
an infection brought to us by the laws
that have decided what we are, and
what they are — the blonde ones. It
turns out that all of us are carriers,
as people may have in their
bloodstream a disease that may or may
not manifest itself in them but will
be passed on; it has come to him in
spite of all he has emancipated
himself from so admirably — oh yes, I
did, I do admire my father. People
talk of someone “coming down” with a
fever; he’s coming down with this; to

This causes a certain amount of intolerance for his father’s actions. After Aila and Baby become aware of Sonny’s indiscretion, they become involved in the civil rights movement. In the past, Aila refused to be a part of the force against apartheid until she realized how important it was to her husband and their marriage. William is the only immediate family member who does not get involved in the movement. He ends up being a writer who narrates the book.

Nadine Gordimer is a renowned South African writer whose novels are well received internationally. The question is, however, does she have the authority to write about a Black family in which one member has an affair with a white woman? The point is especially important, since it’s a family involved in the struggle against apartheid. Speaking from a North American point of view, white North Americans have always portrayed Blacks in a limited light even though our society has been legally integrated for a number of years. They never seem to understand their special needs or problems. How can Nadine Gordimer accurately write about Blacks’ personal lives, feelings, and needs?

Moreover, a lot of Black females are sensitive to the idea of interracial relationships, especially in the case of Black men and white women. Gordimer does, however, portray the relationship quite tastefully; there is a deep friendship between Sonny and Hannah that simply does not exist between Sonny and his wife. Surprisingly, Hannah seems to have some sort of respect for Sonny’s family, including his wife; she does not say anything derogatory about Aila and even shows remorse when Aila is arrested as a result of her involvement in the struggle. Sonny’s feelings for his wife are evident when he becomes worried after learning about his wife’s involvement in the movement.

There does not seem to be the same type of intimacy that exists between Sonny and Hannah. The bond in this affair seems to transcend any preconceived notions about the relationship between peoples in a country like South Africa.

Barth’s Last Voyage dazzles

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

By John Barth

Little, Brown

The Arabian Nights is a text with a history as confused as one of its own tales. Over the centuries, it has been the subject of numerous re-writings, revisions and augmentations. It is, after all, a story about the telling of stories, and one that arose from a tradition of oral storytelling. Since it cannot be attributed to any one author, The Arabian Nights seems to invite new generations of authors to try their hands at it, to make the Nights their own.

American author John Barth has made considerable use of The Nights as an archetype for the weaving of complex narrative structures through the interpolation of tales, and has parodied and borrowed from it in several of his works. His latest novel, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, follows in this vein by blending a parodic re-writing of the story of Sinbad the Sailor with the life story of an American journalist from Maryland.

Barth’s novel begins with the end: Death himself, “The Destroyer of Delights,” has finally come for Scheherazade. Where once she strove to keep him at bay through the telling of stories, she now longs for Death, who has already taken away her friends and family. But in an amusing inversion, Death demands from her one last tale before he will take her away, a “virgin” tale and not one of the dog-eared tales from The Nights. Thus she begins The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor.

The story of Sheherazade is told by “Simon William Behler, a.k.a. ‘Baylor’ the once-sort-of-famous ‘New Journalist,’” to a nurse in a mental hospital. In his tale Behler casts himself as both himself and as that other Sinbad from The Arabian Nights, the like-named porter outside the famed sailor’s palace who is invited in to hear of his adventures. Somebody is “that other, self-styled Sinbad, that nobody whom folks called (for convenience sake) the Landsman.” For “Somebody took that name because then and there, at the time we tell of, he was a streetwise castaway from the Here and Now who happened to know a thing or two about S. the So-Called Sailor, this wealthy Baghdaddy.”

Night after night in Sinbad’s palace, “Somebody” (Behler) and Sinbad batch each other story for story before the sailor’s guests. Barth’s brief re-telling of Sinbad’s stories are hilarious, full of absurd detail and farce. In Sinbad’s escape from the valley of gemstones and serpents, for instance, the famed sailor gives a gruesomely “realistic” account of how he tied himself to a piece of meat and was carried to safety by a vulture looking for food:

Alas, this particular side of mutton
had been so many times recycled in the
heat of the day that it now dripped
and stank like carrion … I scanned the
cliff top, hoping for a fresher
vehicle … [there being none]
nevertheless, breathing gingerly, I
trussed myself under the rotten meal
in hope of retrieval, and there spent
the most disgusting hour of my story
thus far. No rocs appeared — rocs
don’t eat carrion — but so many flies
swarmed down that with any
organization at all, they alone could
have carried us off … I praised Allah
the Tireless Schoolmaster, who deigns
to teach us lessons even when we’re
pat applying them.

The biography of Behler the American journalist is narrated in the first person in a conventional “realist” style. There is, however, a prominent use of symbols that undermines this realism and works effectively to bring an overall unity to these chapters. Behler’s wristwatches, for instance, serve as markers of the passing stages in his life. For the most part, Barth’s evocation of an American boyhood is charming and at times beautiful in its Proustian recollection of the pains and joys of early experience. Behler as an adult, however, is often such an unsavoury character that it is often hard to feel any concern for him (and we are apparently meant to). Barth slips into embarrassingly dated and at times offensive descriptions of Behler and his sex life with some regularity. We are told of how he “fucked his brains out” with one woman, had a (wince) time-transcending fuck” with another, and how he has the urge on a couple of occasions to punch out his wife. In this last instance, for example, after Behler’s violent thoughts his wife is depicted as more and more of a monster in what seems to be an attempt to justify this impulse. Sure, he never carries it out, but you really have to wonder what Barth is up to.

On a purely formal level the book is, as might be expected of Barth, structurally dazzling. These two story-telling Sinbads, the famed Arabian adventurer and the American journalist, become woven into each others’ tales. From opposite points they come to merge as almost a single character, Behler’s sensitive realist narrative becomes more fantastic, as Sinbad’s own fabulous story becomes more plain and realistic.

Barth does not, however, let the intricacies of structure interfere with spinning a good yarn. The prime idea he seems to have taken from The Arabian Nights is that a storyteller’s ultimate responsibility is to entertain. Chock full of sex (some of it of questionable interest, as mentioned), romance, intrigue and adventure, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, like its Arabian predecessor, is able to keep the “Destroyer of Delights” at bay just a little longer.

Matt Cohen’s subtle sorrow

Emotional Arithmetic

By Matt Cohen

Lester & Orpen Dennys

Seven years ago, Canadian author Matt Cohen decided to begin writing about “Jewish themes.” After publishing stories about rural Canada for fifteen years, he knew that this decision would have “important consequences for [him] as a writer,” but even he underestimated the radical reaction his readers and critics would display to his change of focus.

“They thought I had gone completely insane … because of their sense that I had betrayed by Canadianness by writing about being Jewish.” Despite the pleas of the critics (from whom artists are often inclined to take advice), Cohen has continued to write in this vein and has published four books since 1984.

His most recent novel, Emotional Arithmetic, concerns itself with a somewhat fragmented Canadian family, each member of which has a different perception of the war and the holocaust. The story is partially told by Benjamin Winters, a middle-aged, first generation Canadian. Initially, his narrative style seems as disinterested and unbiased as one could reasonably expect from a first person narrator who is also a main character. His confidence and ironic wit quickly earns our trust that he will responsibly take on the important task of being our eyes in his world. Benjamin will surely be the one to endure the family crises, see through the shallowness of others and make all the right value judgments with incisive insights and cutting wit, so that despite his own small problems, he will emerge at the conclusion of the story as a well-balanced, clearheaded and mature third person narrator with whom we can all identify.

Then again, maybe he won’t. Early in the novel, Benjamin recalls for us his frustration at being forced by his father to learn French while staying on the family farm one summer. His father informs him that a Frenchman had cleared the land for the farm, and the Frenchman’s son, who was missing a leg from the war, had built the barn. Benjamin muses:

Because the son of a Frenchman had got
his leg shot off, I, Benjamin Winters,
had to learn to speak French. It was a
familiar kind of equation. For
example: because the Germans had baked
six million Jews, I, Benjamin Winters,
was one day going to have a bar
mitzvah in a Kingston synagogue.

Something about his tone causes one to doubt that his portrayal of people who survived the war and holocaust is wholly accurate and sensitive. Once our suspicion is aroused, we become more and more aware that Benjamin’s analysis of life around him is not a wholly accurate one, just his own.

Fortunately, we do not experience the entire story from Benjamin’s point of view, as the first several chapters would have us believe. Much of the character development in the novel takes place within the thoughts and memories of the individual characters. Melanie, Ben’s mother, had been held as a child at Drancy in Paris, from where Jews were regularly shipped to concentration camps. At Drancy, having lost both of her parents, she was cared for by Jakob Bronski, a Russian translator and poet. After the war, Jakob was held until the present time in a mental hospital in the Soviet Union, while Melanie grew up in New England, married an eminent historian and had a son. Upon Jakob’s release, which gains considerable press, Melanie invites him to live with the family in Canada.

Melanie maintains file upon file of statistics about the number of Jews taken during the holocaust, where they were detained, how they were killed, how many committed suicide and how few survived. Her study is an obsession which overtakes her and leads to manic depression. Cohen periodically punctuates the memories of her internment with numbers and statistics from her files; hence the title of the book, Emotional Arithmetic. Melanie receives no emotional help from her promiscuous husband Doctor David Winters, who prefers to philander rather than face anything which might resemble a problem. While Melanie’s memories are mostly concerned with her childhood during the war, her son Ben frequently recalls bitter events during the course of his parent’s turbulent marriage and frequent break-ups. The two streams of memory piece together the puzzle of Melanie’s present mental illness.

Throughout the novel our sympathies are unquestionably with the mentally ailing Melanie, while her husband David continually escapes the troubled world of his family to seek solace in not-so-illicit affairs. Near the conclusion of the novel, in an argument with Melanie, Ben defends his father, saying, “Maybe he only anted to marry you, not six million dead Jews.” Thus son follows father into a world in which marriage is only for better, and in which to escape the weakness of one’s loved ones, one need only flee to another “universe of soft skin, warm arms.” Our narrator has lost his vision and refuses to put on his glasses. The book concludes with Melanie reaching out to her grandson, perhaps homing against hope that the cycle of cynical indifference can be broken.

Matt Cohen communicates various aspects of his characters’ “life stories” at once in a manner which attempts to imitate the inimitable ways of the mind and memory. Important details are withheld and then spring upon us suddenly out of the past. The past thus becomes the present, both in the respect that the memory takes us back to the event when the character experienced it, and in the respect that the experience and especially the suffering then becomes part of the character in the present as we perceive her or him.

Concerning the question of his own Jewish identity, Cohen has said “I feel I have to understand — although I know I won’t — what happened to the Jewish-European dream. If we cannot understand what in us has been destroyed then we can’t understand how other peoples suffer in similar circumstances.” Emotional Arithmetic represents both sides of this observation. The novel concerns itself both with those who suffer and with those who do not try hard enough to understand.