Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You Have to See This by Jimmy Chen!

Jimmy Chen, you are the funniest - maybe the only? - literary comic out there.  Obsessive Readers, take a look at one of my favorites, and find others at HTML GIANT. (Also on My Blog List, below).

Rocky, Bullwinkle, Dostoevsky and Me

The Obsessive Reader just saw a hilarious post by Jimmy Chen called "Raskolnikov's Inbox" which I have pasted at the end of this blog post, below.  And it got me to thinking.  I don't know when you first sampled the novels of Dostoevsky, but references to his masterwork, Crime and Punishment, and that novel's doomed protagonist, Raskolnikov, remind me of two incidents from my teenage years; one still resonates with sadness, the other makes me laugh even now.

Sadness first.
A 19th century Obsessive Reader
The Obsessive Reader had a 10th grade AP English teacher, Mrs. Protter.  English, not surprisingly, was my favorite subject.  I loved it so much that nearly every week I read additional plays and novels and submitted reports on them for extra credit.  (Toward the end of the semester The Obsessive Reader's grade in this class was about an A+++!)  BUT, no matter how well I performed, Mrs. Protter refrained from praising me, and, worse, displayed such hostility toward me in class that my classmates often were compelled to come to my defense.  The unfortunate climax arrived when Mrs. Protter refused to believe The Obsessive Reader was the author of one of her many extra-credit book reports, this one on Crime and Punishment.  Pointing to a line in my book report, "the dry business of murder," Mrs. Protter said to me after class one day, "Fifteen year olds don't write like that." She insisted that I bring in my copy of the book so she could check its covers and determine whether I plagiarized my report. Hurt, confused and humiliated by the false accusation, I reported this incident to my parents.  
It was 1969 and my high school in the hills had only that semester opened its segregated white campus to African American students from the flats due to the district's court-ordered integration program.  There were so few of us; I was the lone black student in many of my classes. I interpreted Mrs. Protter's negativity toward me as a sign of inexplicable personal animus; she was picking on me, and I didn't know why.  My wiser parents believed that forces of ingrained racism, personal and institutional, were at work.  They demanded a meeting at my school with the teacher, dean and school principal. After the heated session, I think everyone believed, however subtly, that Mrs. Protter's animus toward me was the result of a disturbed shake-up in her distorted racial views.  But, I wonder. Both my brother and sister behind me had classes with Mrs. Protter, and experienced no such conflicts. And, in my senior year, as my independent study advisor, she gave me an A on an ambitious but garbled paper on D.H. Lawrence that showed, I know now, that I was too young to tackle his challenging world view.  Perhaps what I experienced in the 10th grade was what people call a personality clash.  Or, could she have been transformed by the cauldron of events? Did her confrontations with me change her? I don't know the answer, but I am more sensitive regarding what it may take to be an adult charged with teaching young people the wide-ranging humanist and aesthetic concerns that are the enterprise of literature. 

As it says in Psalms, "weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." So, on to the funnies.

Not long after this protracted event, I was as usual engrossed in watching the sophisticated cartoon, Rocky and Bullwinkle after school one day.  This activity was shared among my multiracial, college-bound, Advanced-Placement-course-taking friends.  We loved being newly aware of the literary and political in-jokes on the show, its knowing, sometimes obscure references to history and culture.  Between the innocence and ignorance of childhood and unknowable adulthood, we were skeptical observers of a society ravaged by the Vietnam War, and thus the perfect audience for the comic mayhem of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  With show titles such as "The Fin Diver or The Sharkshank Redemption," and "Cruise Control or Lord of the Spies," you can see how the silly, but sharp-edged educated humor appealed to us, burgeoning snobs and novice dissidents.  So, this afternoon, I was lounging in front of the TV in the hours before my parents arrived home from work, in between starting up dinner and ignoring my younger brother and sister as best I could.  The show commenced.

Narrator: Our story begins in Pottsylvania, the home of that terrible trio, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and Fearless Leader. Since it is overrun by spies and a villain who wants to take over the world, the place is very dark and dreary. Which explains the lush plant life, wildlife, bright sunlight, and... wait a minute, what is this?

Natasha: We are in a jungle, narrator dollink.

Narrator: Okay, but what are you doing in a jungle?

Boris: Our boss told us that one of his spies found a secret formula here. It is so top secret that we are not supposed to tell anyone.
Narrator: You just told me about it.

Boris: Raskolnikov!

Fearless Leader: Badenov, you numbskull! What have I told you about secret formulas?

Boris: Uh, telling someone about them doesn't make them secrets anymore?

Fearless Leader: Exactly.

Raskolnikov! Boris Badenov (whose name is another joke, of course, on a real life tsar from Russia's misty past immortalized by Pushkin and Mussogorsky) had just uttered the word as if it was an oath, a curse. Raskolnikov! I knew who that was! The reluctant, impoverished, 
spiritually desperate murderer created by Dostoevsky. I had just read "Crime and Punishment," one of the masterpieces of literature. In front of the TV set in 1969, The Obsessive Reader laughed with recognition at the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon, filled with a delight Mrs. Protter could never take away from me. 

*(Disclaimer: Rocky and Bullwinkle are owned by Jay Ward Productions)

As promised at the top of this post, enjoy this post found at one of my favorite literary blogs, HTML GIANT

Jimmy Chen

Raskolnikov’s inbox

[Best if read bottom up for chronological order.]

Monday, February 7, 2011

I Get Such a RUSH in my HEAD

American novelist, Norman Rush, b. 1933
For some of us Obsessive Readers, 2011 means avidly awaiting the latest publication by the wonderful American writer, Norman Rush.  He is one of the very few American literary figures who understands deeply what James Baldwin wrote in his essay, "Stranger in the Village" in NOTES OF A NATIVE SON: "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." I recently read Rush's two massive, extraordinary novels, MATING and MORTALSset in Botswana, where he spent five (obviously unforgettable) years with his wife as co-director of the Peace Corps in that Southern African country.   I have such enthusiasm for this work; every day while reading his books I rushed - pun intended - home to immerse myself in the author's compelling world. (I haven't yet read his first book of short stories, WHITES, but plan to, see below).

Botswanan novelist, Bessie Head, 1937 - 1986
The Obsessive Reader was predisposed to Mr. Rush because of another extraordinary literary figure I was fortunate to discover in the 1980s, Botswanan author, Bessie Head. Head was born in the Natal in apartheid South Africa and fled to Botswana as a political refugee.  Her books include WHEN RAIN CLOUDS GATHER, A QUESTION OF POWER, SEROWE: VILLAGE OF THE RAIN WIND and A BEWITCHED CROSSROAD. Bessie Head was the first African woman writer I read and her voice resounds still: incisive, tragic, lyrical.  I would very much like to travel to Serowe where Head lived and died and visit the Khama III Memorial Museum where her papers are archived and there is a permanent exhibit devoted to her.

My first acquaintance with Norman Rush was as a casual browser.  I'd seen his books on shelves in the public library and in bookstores.  I would note that their covers were composed around details from Hieronymus Bosch's painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights.  Then I moved on to other choices. I don't know why. Perhaps it just wasn't my time to be initiated into Rush's literary delights.

Later, still not having approached the work, I read the interview he did with Paris Review.  His unusual background and intellectual awareness, his artful conversation and worldly concerns so intrigued me I was finally sold.  I found MATING (480 pages), his first novel, published in 1990, at my favorite public library branch and committed myself to it. MATING, the 1991 National Book Award winner for Fiction,  makes the rest of American fiction look anemic.  As New York Times critic John Leonard described it, MATING is: "A parable of sex and utopia, an allegory of Mother Africa, a romance of political economy and a rewrite of Botswana's social text in discursive feminism."  And Rush himself stated in an interview with National Book Critics Circle Board member, Scott Esposito that   "I wrote frankly about what I saw in the various exotic cultures that I encountered in Africa: Tswana, U.S. Embassy, development professionals, development volunteers from everywhere, old-line Brit civil servants who’d been kicked down the African continent as British rule faded away and ended up in Botswana."

Just as I was about to finish reading MATING (my appetite as an Obsessive Reader having been aroused, not sated by reading Rush's first book), I lucked on a rare remaindered copy of MORTALS (715 pages), published in 2003, in a Barnes and Noble.  I had stopped to browse the discount tables on my way out of the mall, and there, as if fated, the next book I was so eager to read.  James Wood of the New Republic is a champion of Rush's fiction and wrote the best review of MORTALS I've come across. Wood compares Rush to Joseph Conrad and extols his prose. "One reason that Rush has so excited literary readers — and excited them on the strength, until now, of only one novel — has to do with his extraordinary prose...He is very interested in speech, in the slightly barbaric twisting of language that we commit when we speak, or speak to ourselves."

Now there is the exciting news, for us fans of Norman Rush, that a new novel - might be!! - expected this year. The literary blogosphere has sprouted with rumors and anticipation.  Last year John Woods told The Millions  “I think [Rush's] next book — his first to be set in America — will be unlike anything he has written before.” Esposito's blog reprinted this excerpt from a 2008 interview with Rush. "It sort of goes like this: Mating is about courtship; Mortals is about marriage; Subtle Bodies [Rush's upcoming book] is about friendship. Subtle Bodies is set in the Catskills on the eve of the invasion of Iraq." A comment at The Millions from someone who attended a reading by Rush from SUBTLE BODIES at the 92nd Street Y in 2007, pronounced that "there was indeed something different about this new work–something fresher, more poignant, more human (if that is in fact possible, given the great humanity of Rush’s previous novels). " I can hardly wait to read it. In the meantime, as a truly Obsessive Reader, I will be checking out the stories in WHITES.