Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Orwell Meets the Other Marx: on Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners

It’s taken me many years to finally get around to Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. The problem was one of aesthetics; the only copy I’d ever seen was the nasty, cheap -looking Heinemann African Writers Series edition, which sported a horrendous illustration of men in zoot suits looking glum. Such minor reservations should not be enough to preclude one from picking up a book, but, with so much else to read, these small barriers are often more than enough to ignore a novel.

In fact, up until recently, I’d rather forgotten about The Lonely Londoners. It had become one of those books that I suspected was rather more taught than actually read: the token darkie in the ghost white face of post-war English fiction. It was only Hari Kunzru’s passionate championing of it at a recent event in Shoreditch that made me look at it differently. That and a handsome new edition from Penguin Modern Classics. For both, I am hugely grateful.

Written in an effortless patois, The Lonely Londoners is a collage of voices; a plotless, digressive, tangential novel that weaves between a series of West Indian immigrants, all linked in some way to Moses Aloetta: the wise owl of the book. Now an experienced Londoner, Moses sees the pitfalls the city has to offer, as well as its charms. As those fresh from the boat charge around town, it's Moses who spends a lot of time telling them to calm down; and perhaps with good reason.

London is as much a character in this novel as Sir Galahad, Five Past Midnight, Tolroy – even Moses himself. While it may be a partial picture, the London that Selvon describes feels wholly real. The slums and the flop houses of Bayswater, the blinding lights of Charing Cross and Piccadilly Circus, the corner shops of Brixton. Selvon highlights the city’s attractions and the temptations as well as its grim realities; the intoxicating nature of walking through the city – and the desperation of doing so without money in your pocket.

While Selvon has Orwell’s outsider eye for a telling detail and cultural tic – the way, for example, Tolroy dresses like an English gent with his copy of The Times prominently on show – he has a far sharper comic sensibility. In fact, The Lonely Londoners probably owes a significant debt to the Marx Brothers – especially Cap’s hilarious battles with London’s pigeons and seagulls. Orwell’s unremitting bleakness serves his political motivations, but his lack of humour has always suggested to me that we are being fed only some of the truth. Brit’n, after all, is a place where there is always humour, no matter how dark the situation.

And there is no doubt that the situation is bad for many of the characters who populate Selvon’s novel. It’s here that the novel is less successful as it struggles to shoehorn in some of the pressing realities of immigrant life. The newspaper reporter who asks why so many people are coming over from the West Indies at the beginning of the novel, for example, feels forced; as does some of the more overtly political conversations in which Moses exposes the truth behind the Welfare State or the recruitment of ethic workers. These clumsy episodes have the spice of polemic, but seem rather out of place in an otherwise naturalistic fictional world.

To me, The Lonely Londoners is one of the capital’s greatest literary creations; a novel of heart, humanity and understanding. It is resolutely not just about the Windrush generation’s experiences. It is about belonging and not belonging: about where one fits in the world and in society. It’s a testament to immigrant dreams, of casting off what’s gone before and reinventing oneself as a new and better person. And as such, it’s one of the most arresting and affecting pieces of fiction you’ll ever read – and one that deserves to be celebrated as a key novel of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Reading Myself and Others

It’s been several months since I last wrote an entry here. This is due to laziness and excitement, and let’s be honest, probably too much wine. It’s also been a period of time where I haven’t managed to read or indeed write a great deal. When reading ducks to below one book a week, it’s normally not a good sign. Thankfully this has been restored over the last week with a healthy dose of short(ish) fiction.

Getting over a barren run like this requires a book that reinvigorates you; reminds you of why reading is important in the first place. It also needs to be somehow synchronous with whatever put you in the funk in the first place. It doesn’t have to tackle it straight on, it just needs to acknowledge it in some subtle way and move on. For some reason, re-reading books doesn’t help. I can’t, say, go back to Keep the Aspidistra Flying for comfort; Gordon Comstock would seem too bitter and not as I recall him; Portrait of the Artist similarly would just make me hate Stephen for being a pretentious, masturbating teenager; Underworld would just remind me that I can’t fucking write. So something new then, something to draw a line in the sand, and then something to surprise.

The book that provided all this for me – after a false start with the superb, meditative and curiously affecting All That Follows by Jim Crace – was Joe Meno’s The Great Perhaps, a novel that while comfortable as jogging bottoms, has a subtlety and ulterior motive that is quite devastating. His gift for dialogue is incredible, particularly the aggressive demotic of teenagers, and his unashamedly optimistic, yet guarded, world-view makes for a wholly different kind of read: not for Meno the hysterical realism or nihilism of many American writers of my generation.

That’s not to say there’s no rage here, just that the rage is contained as it is in all of us: ready to bubble up at times, just not as a constant. Meno’s is a political novel in a bi-curious political age: it engages with politics as many of us now do – at a distance, once removed. Our politics, as Crace’s book also points out, comes with a hint of nostalgia, a glowing thought that those that came before us fought the real fight, that we are nothing compared to them and their commitment. Meno turns that on its head, showing us the reality: we have always been cowards, cowardice is as important for the survival of the human race as bravery. After all, if all the warriors are killed in battle, how can the blood line continue?

This dialectic between doing and not doing, between action and inaction, is also at the heart of two other books I recently devoured. The first – In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut – is a quiet, stark and unsettling kind of meta-fiction. Reading like a cross between recent Coetzee and Sebald, these three travel narratives combine to create a startling whole – as well as a deliberate hole. We never quite get to the bottom of the crisis, the impetus the narrator, “Damon” feels for walking and journeying. He is cast in many roles as he wanders with others, placed in roles also by the author who never settles on a first or third person narration. This eddying can be distracting, but it also gets the heart of the issue: should one trust the self? Or should one just go right ahead and ignore its prevarications. The stasis that “Damon” finds himself in is never truly resolved or explained, yet it is instantly recognisable.

The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter, a debut collection which I finished in a flurry yesterday, follows a similar theme, but instead highlights the consequences of an action, or more specifically living with a specifically taken decision. In so many of these wonderfully precise, elegant and ultimately heartbreaking stories, we see young lovers turn into resentful adults, moments where another life presents itself but is ignored for safety’s sake, instances where everything seems right, but ultimately is bound to fuck up. These are raw stories, more jagged than one expects from the studied perfection of so many collections. One feels that this was conceived as book rather than as a grab-bag of all the output from a particular period of a writer’s life – even if this is highly unlikely.

Carver and Cheever have been mentioned in relation to Porter’s stories, but this is just laziness. Both writers remain inspirations in the same way that Barth and Barthelme do to the more experimental end of fiction, but as a generation we are not simply replicating the pared down, adjectiveless prose of the dirty realists. Porter’s fiction is emotionally acute, resonant and alive in its own right; but it is his alone. His voice is delicate and elegant, and he sees things that other authors would miss. Reading him reminded me about why we read at all: to feel that there are stories out there that can make sense of our lives. As I look at the to be read pile, I’m thankful I’m back reading, back wanting to make sense of my life again.