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

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.


Natasha Bauman said...

Thanks for this piece. You've whetted my appetite. I am excited to see whether or not I'll get a rush to my head.

The Obsessive Reader said...

Thank you, Natasha. I am interested in reading YOUR novel, and hope to soon.