Archive for the ‘*****’ Category

Sometime last year, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a non-fiction reconstruction of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, a young man who chose to drop out of life as most of us know it and lose his identity and background in a new sort of life, one more “authentic” and “closer to nature,” wandering through the USA until his death in the Alaskan wilderness.

I put those quotation marks there quite deliberately and maybe even rather sardonically. Initially, I found the premise of the book fascinating, but somewhere along the way, McCandless lost any possibility of seeming heroic. He was ill-prepared for what he was trying to do and apparently lacking in the most basic common sense — who walks into the wilderness with no maps and no compass?  Krakauer, I’ve read, defended McCandless, saying that he just wanted to explore “a blank spot on the map” and therefore did not acknowledge any existence of a map. That’s one view; but I found McCandless supremely lacking in respect for either the wilderness or those who have struggled over the centuries to live in it and have accumulated knowledge to pass on, and Krakauer’s argument seemed equally so. Either which way, whatever your opinion on McCandless, it seems as if Into the Wild had a certain compelling quality, a resonance that came from McCandless’ aim, whether sensible or not, to transcend the ordinary life he was living at the point when he dropped off the radar and started on his wanderings. For is it not human to fear, in our hearts, that we are ordinary, mortal, forgettable, incapable of achieving anything more than the most mundane of drudgeries in our existences?

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (I have not seen the 2009 film) takes this fear of mediocrity and transplants it most skilfully into a suburban American front yard in the 1950s. Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple, with two children, who suffer from one of the ills of our time — they have the luxury of space and time to move beyond mere seeking after food, clothing, and shelter but without knowing quite what to do with it, the capacity to see that their lives could be extraordinary but not the capacity to actually be extraordinary.  “Between the conception / and the creation,” as T. S. Eliot said, “falls the shadow…” April is beautiful and once was hopeful of being an actress before smart, smooth-talking Frank fell for her and they got married. When the novel opens, April is performing a lead role in a local amateur theatrical production that, unfortunately, falls flat. It is telling that it’s not a disaster or open to broad mocking — it simply fails, not spectacularly so. And her discontentment and restlessness come to a head, so that she and Frank persuade themselves and each other that they have to move beyond this ordinariness, beyond April’s housewifely and motherly duties and Frank’s dull, plodding, paper-pushing office job and live the dream — they decide that to truly make the most of their lives, they have to move beyond the sameness of suburban America and go to Europe.

What follows is told quietly, with a hint of wry, ironic humor and a good deal of attention to the detail of negotiation in the communication that comprises a marriage, but is bleak and uncompromising all the same, with a blunted edge of dead hopelessness to it. Just when their plans are laid, April finds that she is pregnant; and Frank finds that he is finally getting somewhere at work and begins to be unexpectedly comfortable with what is.  Yates isn’t going to give us an easy ending; the novel descends into a place of muted horror when April Wheeler takes a drastic decision that ends in tragedy.

Yates’ writing is, as I said, quiet. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here and his style is purely realistic, in a story told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint of Frank Wheeler; April, thus, is always something of an enigma and this makes the trajectory of events all the more shocking when it is finally completely revealed. That descriptive style, verging on blandness, and the ordinary rhythms of conversation pinned down so accurately by Yates seem faintly nightmarish, as if all the potential for newness had been sucked out of them, leaving an infinite hollowness. It is a writing that underlines the sheer futility of the Wheelers’ dreams and plans for being extraordinary and brings a deeper psychological dimension to the reading of the novel, with a capacity to silently discomfit.

1950s suburban America is, to some extent, a staple of texts that mock conservative values and point to inauthenticity and the idea of there being better ways to live. But the Wheelers, with their desperate attempts to reject banality of existence, surely do not belong to that oft-damned milieu. Theirs is a story that has continuing relevance and can still wreak a certain inward havoc on a reader because the Wheelers are the seekers after a life less ordinary that all of us are or might have been, to some extent or another. They believe that they are different from the commonplace people around them, but we, all-knowing readers, can see that they are not, and it puts an uncomfortable mirror up to our own ideas about ourselves. Yates grants them no redemption and us no comfort.

But this book, oddly enough, considering how disturbing it is, has a certain spiritual and philosophical value that is hard to pin down but is somewhat akin to that of suffering. It can’t be defined because it is bound to be different for every reader that sees himself looking out of the eyes of Frank and April and for some, it won’t even be there at all. But it is Yates’ truly remarkable achievement that this book is not a facsimile of depression or a sentimental, romanticised banging against the sky; it never manipulates, it constructs a recognizable reality around its reading and becomes a true experience of despair. And why would anyone want to read a true experience of despair? Perhaps because it is so delicately crafted. Perhaps because it resonates anywhere where there is the dread of banality. Perhaps because it is part of the nature of life itself.


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Cover of 'The History Boys'Sometime in the 1980s, in a middle-of-the-road state school in England, a group of boys take their O Levels and achieve such good results that the inevitable beckons — they could apply to any university in the land, but it is deemed desirable that they try for Oxford and Cambridge. Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, evokes this betwixt-and-between period in their lives, when, flush with success, they must prepare for their futures — but what are we to see as the most important aspect of their futures? To Hector, a teacher of studied eccentricity, whose classes embrace everything from French lessons (situation: visit to a brothel), to memorising scenes from movies, to having poetry off “by heart”, the future is something that will make poetry valuable to the boys. To Mrs Lintott, a woman with a solidly academic approach, the future is when the depth of their knowledge of history and their ability to discuss historical events coherently will be tested. But to Irwin, a new teacher, recruited by the headmaster to add a bit of “polish” to his boys before they make the grand attempt at entering Oxbridge, the future will be dependent on presentation — on how much dash and verve and originality they can show, never mind solidity or anything that might be thought of, by common consensus, as reasonable.

So this is a play about the boys and their teachers, but it is no Dead Poets’ Society or Mr Holland’s Opus or any of those tales that are about teachers that inspire and students that learn. Yes, there are teachers here that inspire, but the beauty of Bennett’s play is that he isn’t content to stick to this accepted power relation between teacher and taught; what he gives us instead is a play rich with ambiguity, with students who are far from being children and are sometimes more powerful as adults than their teachers, and teachers who aren’t sacred idols but flawed instead, human beings seeking out some sort of affirmation and only sometimes getting it. These are students old enough to pass judgement on their teachers, as if they were their peers — and also old enough to sometimes refrain from passing judgement.

The key point of the play is the process of preparation for the Oxbridge entrance and the different views to this taken by each of the teachers, but it is their discussion of how to write history that imprints itself on the mind, fraught as it is with various ideas of ethics, philosophy, story-telling, logic, and understanding why human beings do what they do. Mrs Lintott is conservative, reasonable; Hector empathetic and poetic; Irwin ruthless in the pursuit of detachment and originality. In their discussion of writing history, each is exactly as in their classrooms otherwise. Bennett never really favours one over the others; what we get is a sense of how these approaches clash and combine in the boys’ listening and their own attempts at writing history and making connections between what has happened in the past — connections that sometimes match up to and even surpass those their teachers are capable of making.

Because these are intelligent boys and their teachers are not always more intelligent. Crucial to the play is the fact that Hector, beloved by the boys and deeply opposed to the sort of instrumentality of education that Irwin assumes, has a penchant for giving the boys lifts on his motorbike and feeling them up while he does so. This is tolerated by the boys, who seem completely aware of how to handle it, exasperating and intrusive as it may be, but when the headmaster finds out about it, he immediately takes on the role of protector, asking Hector to resign. It is another matter that for him, this is an excuse, something he can grasp at, for getting rid of Hector, whose teaching style he finds problematic.

And then there is  handsome, sharp-witted, arrogant Dakin, who the shy, gay, Jewish boy Posner is in love with, who carries on an affair with the headmaster’s secretary and is fascinated with Irwin. But Irwin himself is seeking a sort of affirmation — he isn’t telling the truth about being at Cambridge, and shies away from Dakin’s pointed focus on him, until at last, Dakin is not only using Irwin’s argumentative tricks better than Irwin himself, but also managing to fascinate the new teacher in return.

I’ve read reviews of the film version that took issue with the variety of homosexual attractions allowed to thread through the play. Big deal. If they were heterosexual relationships, nobody would complain about their existence; they’d become perhaps a ‘natural expression of burgeoning sexuality’. I think they’re gently handled, and if the boys are a trifle more accepting that we might expect from a bunch of unsophisticated teenagers, that is only a problem for a text that takes itself very literally, that aims at reproducing reality. I doubt that such reproduction is Bennett’s motive at all and looking at the play as such is taking a reductionist view of a fine piece of writing.

This isn’t, in other words, simply a play about learning lessons for life, though it actually takes the accepted structure of such a tale and manages to subvert it most thoroughly. By the end, we know what shape the future of each of the boys has taken. And here, again, Bennett gives us the unexpected, with more questions about what the boys’ education really did for them. The last lines of the play are “Pass it on boys. That’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on” — almost the closing of a play about learning from the previous generation and passing on this edification to the next. But this play isn’t that, and it is up to the reader or the audience to decide how much irony this conclusion has been steeped in.

Bennett’s playscript is prefaced with an essay on the background of the British schools system portrayed in the play; it makes much of the sociological context very clear and highlights some of the important questions the play brings up, about education and its forms, purposes and relationship with the life of the mind in the wider world. It’s an essay that is both informative and surprisingly moving, as Bennett recalls his own time as a boy trying out for Oxford and Cambridge and what these two universities meant to the state school boys of his generation.

And then, the play begins. Comparisons with the film version, made with a screenplay adapted from the play, are inevitable, not least because the stage cast as an ensemble reprised their roles on film. It is a good enough film, but it actually ends up being more upbeat and certain of itself than the play is, which is a problem, for the strength of Bennett’s play lies in its comfort with its own ambiguity, its willingness to desist from giving us all the answers. Reading the play, some understanding of what the literality of the filmic experience robs becomes evident; there is obviously much more room for interpretation in a playscript without clear scene changes or stage directions. The dialogue becomes as symbolic as it is realistic, the boys in my mind’s eye sitting on chairs in the darkness as a spotlight roves among them. Scenes that in the film seemed to lead nowhere, to be a lot of conversation, take on the weight of philosophical discourse on the imagined stage — and miraculously manage to carry it, while still being scenes in a classroom. This is absolutely a play to read for its dialogue. It’s keenly heard, wryly funny, and full of the echoes of classrooms we’ve all been in, writing we’ve all loved, people we’ve all known. His History boys are clever and unruly, full to different extents of the mixture of smugness and seeking that is youth.

I watched the film version well before I read the play, and I have to admit that I loved the film because I thought it was talking about the things I cherish — literature, poetry, learning what isn’t obviously useful — and because it affirmed what I thought about them. Then I read this play and found that it was about so much more. What Bennett is interested in here is the very concepts of youth and experience and education. And what he gives us at the end of the play is not clarity, not transparent, fixed understanding, but, much more fruitfully, a spur to thought.

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Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.

And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.

What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.

Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist.  The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait, 1910

Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that  mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.

When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case”  (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.

This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.

Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.

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Cover of 'after the quake' A few pages into this slim book of short stories by Japanese writer Murakami, I was uneasy. It was Murakami’s style that was puzzling–it was just too easy to read. Verging on boring. Very simple sentences, very little dialogue, none of the visual detailing that can draw me into a book. This was a realistic telling of a fairly ordinary story. Almost a sketchy treatment for a screenplay. I wasn’t sure I was going to have anything to say about it–all I could see in front of me was a blank.

I read on.

As I went on through the extreme simplicity of Murakami’s writing, I began to see what I couldn’t before. In this book, his is a style that is stripped down completely, made bare, with starkly contoured outlines suddenly visible. Like a line drawing, a very basic line drawing. It was simply a language so restrained, so minimal that it was conserving everything, telling more in what it wasn’t telling, in its silence than in its words. You have to read very slowly, taking in the slightness of each sentence, understanding it and then moving on, to actually grasp at the almost untellable emotional weight they convey; there is much more in suggestion than in description. There are no short-cuts to reading and comprehending these stories.

And they are a curious set of stories, all hearkening back to the quake of the title (the Kobe earthquake) in some way or another, though without their characters being directly affected by that event. A man whose wife has just left him ferries a mysterious parcel to another city. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl spend time with each other lighting bonfires on the beach. A young man who has been constantly told that he is the Son of God follows a stranger who he thinks might be his father. A woman bitter after a divorce takes a vacation in Thailand and comes to a recognition of her mortality. A collection agent is visited at night by a giant frog who insists that the two of them together have to go into battle to save the city of Tokyo from an earthquake. And the last story traces the topography of a novelist’s long-term friendship with a married couple and their baby, and how they are his family.

If I were to liken this sequence of storytelling to anything, it would be to a piece of music. The first four stories make up one part for me, each of them dealing, in some way, with the aloneness of the human being, and all written realistically. They are abrupt, almost interludes in the lives of their characters, and allow for one or two scenes in which the action takes place in an unfolded present. The background is told quickly, years of the past condensed into a line or paragraph. The characters are separate from each other, vast spaces between them. In these stories’ sudden ceasing, their ambiguity at the end, they are unnerving, very disquieting.

The fifth story, with the surreal element of the giant frog, manifests a drastic shift. Now, suddenly, superimposed on the style of the first four stories, there is this creature out of a nightmare, something leaning out of the subconscious mind and imposing itself on the story’s reality. It seems to jar, odd for the sake of oddness, and nothing really comes of it in any sense that can be easily understood or related in terms of human relationships, though it can be said to achieve a sort of dream-like closure for its protagonist.

And then, there is the final story, ‘honey pie’, perhaps the only one that can be called beautiful, the only one that carries in that strongest of emotions, love, and its sometimes-corollary, loyalty. ‘honey pie’ follows three friends, two men and a woman, through university and youth, through the marriage of two of them and the birth of a child, and then through a divorce. Junpei, one of the two men, finds himself on the verge of erotic fulfillment with Sayoko, the woman, who is no longer with Takatsuki, the father of her child and Junpei’s friend since university. But at this climactic moment, the sexual impulse sublimates into another kind of love–that for a family, a tight unit to cleave to and to protect. And yet, it is a story that ends with Junpei as another human being alone–only he is a human being courageous enough and strong enough to be both alone and one with those he loves.

As I read that last story, I could not help but feel that I had finally read a story that was complete. Not neat, or tidy, or stilted, or overly-symmetrical, but complete. That is what Murakami achieves as he closes out the sequence of intensity, of intense humanity, that is after the quake. He wrote this, I gather, after the Kobe earthquake as part of an effort to consider the reality of Japanese society more deeply. Whether it speaks to the Japanese I do not know;  nor whether it speaks to most readers; but it  has the capacity to speak to that place inside each of us that makes us fundamentally, individually, bravely human.

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Cover of MortMort is, according to the results of the BBC’s Big Read, the UK’s favourite Discworld novel. Not hard to see why, really. This is Pratchett at his best, hitting his form–and presumably also Pratchett long before editors began to canonize his manuscripts and be afraid to actually trim the fat. Mort is in stark contrast to the previous Pratchett I read, Thief of Time, which was fun, but verging on sloppy. It’s tightly written and plotted, genuinely funny and witty, full of really good jokes. Really good ones, really fresh ones. I spent a lot of time with this book just grinning–and not in the way a skull does. Which only goes to show how delightful this book was–I’ve actually read it once before, but enjoyed it as much as if it was a new discovery.

Enough waffling. Mort is the first of the books in the series that focus on Death (the Anthropomorphic Personification). The eponymous character, Mort, is a young lad who goes in search of work and ends up being hired by Dearth, as an apprentice, to assist in the work of ushering souls from life into the next world. Death lives in a black castle in his own realm where time stands still, has a servant named Albert, a gleaming white horse named Binky, and, not least, an adopted daughter named Ysabell. Mort does not fall in love with the daughter, though Death appears to want him to; instead, he develops a mad crush on a princess and, when she dies, refuses to do his job of taking her soul across, thus altering reality. And that’s all of the plot you need to know for starters, really.

The awkward, determined Mort is enormously likeable, but it’s Death who’s the star here. Death is the Grim Reaper of European cultural imagery; he carries a scythe and rides a white horse and is hidden under a voluminous cloak. Death is fascinated with life and the living, especially with the human race and its foibles. His realm, created by him, is a way of trying to fit in; he eats (lord knows how), and drinks, and attempts to go to a party, and, as Ysabell says, though he didn’t FEEL sorry for her, he probably THOUGHT sorry for her when he was adopting her. He’s also fond of kittens. Poor chap. The loneliness of being Death doesn’t escape Pratchett’s pen.

Such is the power of Pratchett’s characterization that he, reportedly, has received numerous letters from people who are terminally ill, saying that they hope that when death comes for them, he will be Pratchett’s Death. This isn’t as inane as it sounds, though the pseudo-religiosity of this sentiment is mildly alarming; Pratchett’s Death is humane and even sympathetic, ready to help a soul on into the unknown. He abides strictly by the rules of the universe, but he does carry out his task reliably, solidly, with no malice. That’s what you’d want at the end of life, I think. It’s what anyone would want. Pratchett has unerringly written a character that embodies so much of what we think and feel about death.

Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, also recently made a case for having a euthanasia tribunal, to permit people who are terminally ill to decide when they want to end their lives. It’s another mode of making death humane, making sure it doesn’t have to come after long soul-sapping suffering. Evidently, the Death of the Discworld isn’t without his underpinnings in our world.

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Charles “Buddy” Bolden and his band–Standing, left to right: Jimmy Johnson (bass), Buddy Bolden (cornet), Willy Cornish (valve trombone), Willy Warner (clarinet); Seated, left to right: Brock Mumford (guitar), Frank Lewis (clarinet).

I have previously encountered the forms of Michael Ondaatje’s novel-biography, Coming Through Slaughter–in his memoir-novel, Running in the Family, a later work that employs many of the devices to be found in Slaughter. There are quick shifts in voice and perspective, sections consisting entirely of transcripts of interviews conducted, leaps in chronology, poems, and “found” print archival material–a photograph here, a newspaper story there–thrown together to tell not a story but many possible stories, the beauty being in the interplay of a plurality of voices and recordings of the past, with as much conveyed by the gaps between them as by what they say. So it wasn’t, presumably, all new–but the brilliance of Ondaatje is that it was.

Slaughter is a novel-biography; I am not sure what else to call it. It is neither fiction nor yet non-fiction. Its focus is a musician named Buddy Bolden, in early 2oth century New Orleans. Bolden is a cornet player, a barber, a collector of stories for a paper he publishes, called The Cricket, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend, a madman.

There was actually, historically, a musician named Buddy Bolden; he was acknowledged by most early jazz musicians as one of the fathers of jazz. His career came to an end when he was committed to an asylum after a fit of psychosis at the age of 30. There are no known recordings of him playing, and only one known photograph (the one posted above, which is also in Ondaatje’s book) but there are stories, many stories. Some of these have been corroborated with research and others have been found to be merely stories. Still, all of the stories apparently persist. Where the truth about Bolden separates from the legend is difficult to tell.

That ambiguity is, I suppose, ultimately the nature of history-writing, which is always a tying together of fragments of the past into a narrative that seems acceptable and plausible in the present. And that ambiguity serves as the foundation for Coming Through Slaughter. It could be called a novel, but that would be ignoring those sections of it that consist entirely of archival material and summaries of archival material. It could be called a biography, but, a little further research informed me that some of the events Ondaatje discusses are purely fictional, while others are acknowledged as the stuff of myth. I don’t know what to call it, other than novel-biography.

But then again, labelling it is not really important. What is amazing is the vastness and the density of this slim book, which is only 156 pages long. Ondaatje’s prose is so full of adrenaline that it literally throbs against the temples as it races from scene to scene. Bolden in a barbershop, shaving customers, Bolden playing the cornet, Bolden and his children, Bolden leaving his wife and disappearing for two years, Bolden having an affair, Bolden sleeping with woman after woman, Bolden slashing a man in a fight, Bolden persuading the whores of Storyville to pose for his friend, Bellocq, the strange photographer, who in actual fact left behind a vast collection of pictures methodically mutilated. And finally, Bolden at a parade, going mad.

Ondaatje’s descriptive writing is textured and coloured; it smells good sometimes and bad at other times, and it reaches out and grabs at you with rough fingers, sometimes caressing, sometimes pinching hard and leaving bruises. It has a peculiar immediacy and sensual quality that comes from sharp detailing of minute particularities, to the exclusion of the settings and landscapes to position these details in. There is an improvisatory quality here, much like the form of jazz itself–in 10 pages we can go from a conversation to a third person descriptive section to what appears to be an interview to a poem to a dream. How do you read the silences between these narrative jags, how do you put them together? Each reading is a wildly imaginative act.

We are there; we are with Bolden; he can only have lived in and through us. And he is most alive at two times–when Ondaatje writes about his cornet-playing and when he writes about his episode of psychosis. Arguably, nobody has written about playing jazz, feeling jazz as evocatively as Ondaatje does; and undeniably, Bolden’s madness shouts through every few lines, until, at the last, it is shrieking as loudly as his cornet.

If this is a history of Bolden in early jazz, it is an odd sort of one. Factually, it seems it is practically bankrupt. There are only pieces here and pieces there to make a story out of.  But Ondaatje’s sometimes self-conscious phrasing works to remind us that this, like all histories, is a story, even as it drags us right into it.

It was a music that had so little wisdom you wanted to clean nearly every note he passed… There was no control except the mood of his power…and it is for this reason it is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes — then you should never have heard him at all…

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot–see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing, he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as a springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number…

There are no known recordings of Bolden playing, but Jelly Roll Morton did base one of his pieces on an earlier one by Bolden. Listen to an mp3 file of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Jelly Roll Morton).

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