Saturday, May 23, 2015

Past inhabits present in the lives of 3 families (Books - The Turner House by Angela Flournoy; A Legacy by Sybille Bedford; & Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz)

Three family sagas are the subject of this post.  What I like about this form is the intertwining of the characters' narratives with a sense of place and time.  When it works well, I experience both the familiarity of people wanting, thinking and behaving, and the distance of an unfamiliar time and which gradually lessens, becoming more and more like my own. Sybille Bedford's A Legacy (Counterpoint, 1956, 1999) set in late 19th and early 20th century Germany, Naguib Mahfouz's  Palace Walk (Doubleday, 1956, 1990) set in early 20th century Cairo, and Angela Flournoy's accomplished debut The Turner House, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) set in past and present day Detroit.

I read the first volume in Sybille Bedford's fictionalized version of her own family history.  A Legacy (Counterpoint, 1956, 1999) tells of three generations of two families, one Jewish and one Catholic - the last generation of which was her own.  The place was Germany.  The time: post-unified, pre-war era - that is, the 1870s - 1914.  Bedford wrote the book in 1952 - so post-war England, and England was relentlessly post-war into the 1970s.  The legacy of WWII and of the Nazi enemy was a fresh wound at the time of her writing.  I read the book with a vague sense that I might learn something of the world my own German-Jewish ancestors.

Bedford writes with a remote, critical amusement.
Their name was Merz.  Arthur and Henrietta Merz.  They were I believe second cousins, and belonged by descent to the Jewish upper-bourgeoisie of Berlin, the Oppenheims and Mendelssohns and Simons, the dozen families or so whose money still came in from banking and from trade, but who also patronized and often practised the arts and sciences, and whose houses, with their musical parties and their pictures, had been oases in the Prussian capital for the last hundred and twenty years.  The Merz's were direct and not remote descendants of Henrietta Merz, the friend of Goethe and of Mirabeau, Schleiermacher and Humboldts, the woman who barely out of the ghetto set up a salon where she received the translators of Shakespeare with advice and the King of Prussia with reserve.  This celebrated lady had a tall figure and a greek profile, a large circle, many lovers and an enormous correspondence; like George Eliot, she spoke English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and unlike George Eliot she could also read in Swedish.  No trace of this heredity survived in Grandmama and Grandpapa Merz, the name I was taught to give them when I learnt to speak and the only one, I find, I can now use with ease.  They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons.  While members of what might have been their world were dining to the sounds of Schubert and of Haydn, endowing research and adding Corot landscapes to their Bouchers and the Delacroix, and some of them were buying their first Picasso, the Merz's were adding bell-pulls and thickening the upholstery...
This gist is: generations of wastrels upset the old ways, gamble, marry the wrong people, and generally cause scandals that mortify the elder generation, but are no longer quite as horrifying as they once were.  Bedford wrote that "Each family stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often victims, of the now united German and what was brewing therein."  Bedford surmised that the wars, abuses of law, and outrageous carnage that followed had their roots in the lives of families like the ones she writes of, but all of this is delivered in so detached a tone, in language so indirect that the plot and its connection to historical events are blurred.  Whether purposely obfuscated, or whether Bedford was unconsciously horrified of her ancestors because they were Jewish, German, inbred, or uncultured, I couldn't tell.         

The second saga was another first of a multi-volume series, this one Palace Walk (Doubleday, 1956, 1990) from the much-lauded Cairo Trilogy by Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz.  Here too, the lives of the characters mix with political upheaval and the eventual overthrow of British occupation.  In this book, the culture could not have felt more different from my own. In it, the Cairo street and family of patriarch, Al-Sayyid Ahmad, are animated in elegant prose and their domestic and political turmoil laid out in all their contradiction. While Ahmad demands strict adherence to tradition from his wife and daughters, who must view the outside world through a laticework-covered balcony, and unquestioning obedience from his sons, outside his home he pursues a life of sensual pleasure. What I found striking was how different the personalities and behavior of his children were within the confines of their conformity.  Mahfouz's narrative style is highly ornate. I couldn't tell if this a function of Arabic narrative tradition or whether it is the result of the translation, but the dialogue of the characters, whether male or female, adult or child, all were rendered in the same baroque syntax and musical diction.  However, the insights I gained into Arabic culture were fascinating and the parallel domestic and political drama in the final scenes were tautly written and moving.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sent me an advance copy of Angela Flournoy's brand new The Turner House, concerning four generations of the Turner family.  Francis and Viola Turner, born in the rural south in the 1920s, end up in Detroit.  They have 13 children all told who are the older adult generation of a sprawling African-American family, most of them living in present day Detroit with their children, spouses, and lovers. The eldest, Charles (Cha-Cha), and his wife host the now elderly and widowed Viola, as the eponymous Turner house is so large and dilapidated that it is not safe for the frail Viola. With a cast of over 30 characters switching between past and present day, a story encompassing contemporaneous issues of relationship, aging, finances, and belief, all running parallel to the current aging, finances, and politics of the city of Detroit, and a ghost story, this debut novelist had her work cut out for her.  She has more than met her self-imposed challenges in this resonant and accomplished novel.

Flournoy's narrative organizes multiple characters and timelines with clarity, integrates contemporary sociopolitical issues into the story so that they are recognized in the way they effect the characters (including the house itself)  rather than coming off as polemic, and creates a family on the page that feels real in the complexity of its relating individuals.  Her narrative voice is easy, but balances being inventive with being literate.
In the summer of 1958, Cha-Cha, the eldest child at fourteen years, was in the throes of a gangly-legged, croaky-voiced adolescence.  Smelling himself, Viola called it.  Tired of sharing a bed with younger brothers who peed and kicked and drooled and blanket-hogged, Cha-Cha woke up one evening, untangled himself from his brothers' errant limbs, and stumbled into the whatnot closet across the hall.  He slept on the floor, curled up with his back against dusty boxes, and started a tradition.  From then on, when one Turner child got grown and gone, as Francis described it, the next eldest child crossed the threshold into the big room.
Flournoy also has a firm hand with dialogue.  It rings the right note of truth but flows easily to and from the leaner and more formal narrative. 
"I take it all this chicken ain't for me, the weekend guest of honor?"  Russell said.

"Not this time," Tina said.  "The woman's ministry is hosting a picnic tomorrow."

"Mmm-mmm, now you know I love a women's ministry!" Russell said.  He rubbed his hands together.

Tina swatted her spatula in his direction from the other side of the counter.

"You're just as bad as Cha-Cha.  Y'all both need more church."
You don't so much read these words as hear them together with the musical notes of their prosody.  In addition, they differentiate the characters from each other and create relationship - Tina and Russell's history of poking each other plays right off the page. There are plenty of good prose writers, but many falter when it comes to dialogue.  This speaks not just to a cleverness for transcription, but to Flournoy's ability to imagine herself inside the multiple points-of-view of her characters.  That is the mean feat of voicing such a big family.  They don't all get equal play, but whether she is inside the head of a 60-something male truck driver, a 40-something female compulsive gambler, or male Detroit cop, or Viola in her elderly or youthful persona - Flournoy displays first-person insight that feels like it flows from their head to the page.  Sybille Bedford chose to satirize the older generation, a critical point of view that doesn't demand complexity in its point of view.  In Mahfouz's trilogy, the characters are described from a single omniscient view point.  The stand-out strength of Flournoy's artistry is to make evident the difference between the generations, while affording each of them their dignity in a narrative voice that feels consistent.

Late one night in their childhoods, the Turner children see a ghost attack Cha-Cha and try to throw him from the window of their house.  Cha-Cha continues to see this 'haint' into adulthood.  In it, Flournoy finds something that lives on the border of the actual and the ephemeral which embodies the past in the present.  In so doing, she creates a strong theme that partakes of literary tradition but also feels specific to the world of this story, and around which the themes of her first novel are skillfully unified.

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