Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2005
- Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story—Timothy B. Tyson
- Oh the Glory of It All—Sean Wilsey
I want to take back some things I said last month. Or rather, I don’t so much want to take them back as to modify my tone, which is a pretty poor show, considering that writing, especially writing a column, is all about tone: what I’m essentially saying is, don’t read last month’s column, because it was all wrong. I was way too defensive, I see now, about my relative lack of literary consumption (two books, for the benefit of those of you who are too busy busy busy to retain the minutiae of my reading life from one month to the next). Shamefully—oh, God, it’s all coming back to me now—I tried to blame it on all sorts of things, including the London bombs, but the truth is that two books in a month isn’t so bad. There are lots of people who don’t get through two books a month. And anyway, what would happen if I had read no books? Obviously, I’d lose this job (although that’s assuming one of the Spree noticed). But apart from that? What would happen if I read no books ever? Let’s imagine someone who reads no books ever but polishes off every word of the New Yorker, the Economist, and their broadsheet newspaper of choice: well, this imaginary person would do more reading than me, because that’s got to be a couple of hundred thousand words a week, and would also be a lot smarter than me, if you use that rather limited definition of smart which involves knowing stuff about stuff. The New Yorker has humor in it and also provides an introduction to contemporary fiction and poetry. So the only major food group not covered is starch: in other words, the classics. And what would happen if we never read the classics? There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I’m beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they’re a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy.
I picked up Candide because my publishers sent me a cute new edition, and though that in itself wouldn’t have persuaded me, I flicked through it and discovered it was only ninety pages long. Ninety pages! Who knew, apart from all of you, and everybody else? A ninety-page classic is the Holy Grail of this column, and when the Holy Grail is pushed through your letter box, you don’t put it on a shelf to gather dust. (Or maybe that’s exactly what you’d do with the Holy Grail. Is it ornamental? Has anyone ever seen it?) Any-way, I have now read Candide. That’s another one chalked off. And boy, does Voltaire really have it in for Leibnizian philosophy! Whoo-hoo! Now, there’s a justification for reading Candide right there. Many of you will have been living, like Leibniz, in the deluded belief that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds (because you believe that God would have created nothing but the best), but I have read Voltaire, and I can now see that this is a preposterous notion that brings only despair. And it’s not only Leibniz who comes in for a kicking, either. Oh, no. Corneille, the Jesuits, Racine, the Abbé Gauchat, Rousseau…. Just about everyone you’ve ever wanted to see lampooned in a short novel gets what’s coming to them. You lot are probably all familiar with the Abbé Gauchat, the Theatines, the Jansenists, and the literary criticism of Élie-Catherine Fréron, but I’m afraid I found myself flicking frantically between the text and the footnotes at the end; I was unhappily reminded of the time I had to spend at school reading Alexander Pope’s equally mordant attacks on poetasters and so forth. Literary types will tell you that underneath all the contemporary references, you will recognize yourselves and your world, but it’s not true, of course. If it’s this world you’re after, the one we actually live in, you’re better off with Irvine Welsh or Thomas Harris.
The trouble with Candide is that it’s one of those books that we’ve all read, whether we’ve read it or not (cf. Animal Farm, 1984, Gulliver’s Travels, Lord of the Flies). The meat was picked off it and thrown to the crowd in the eighteenth century, and… I’ll abandon this metaphor here, because I suspect that it must inevitably conclude with digestive systems and the consumption of ancient excrement. The point is that we are familiar with silly old Dr. Pangloss, just as we know that some animals are more equal than others. Satires and allegories tend to have been decoded long before we ever get to them, which renders them somewhat redundant, it seems to me. Panglossian is the sort of word you might find from time to time in the Economist and the New Yorker, and in any case, if ever anyone lived in an age that had no need for a savage debunking of optimism, it is us. We believe that everything everywhere is awful, all the time. In fact, Voltaire was one of the people who first pointed it out, and he was so successful that we find ourselves in desperate need of a Pangloss in our lives. Bitter footnote: just after I’d finished my cute hardback, I found an old paperback copy on my shelves (unread, obviously): a hundred and thirty pages. Oh, the pain! I’d never have read—or paid, as you have to think of it in this case—three figures. I was tricked, swindled and cheated by my own publishers, who clearly scrunched everything up a bit to dupe the innocent and the ill read.
Book length, like time, is an abstract concept. Sean Wilsey’s Oh the Glory of It All is a good four times the length of Candide, and I enjoyed it probably four times as much, even though all book logic suggests that the reverse might have been the case. I’m sure young Sean would be the first to admit that there’s some sag around the middle, but like many of us, it’s lovable even at its saggiest point. And also, you never once have to laugh at the pomposities of the French Academies of the eighteenth century, a prerequisite, I now understand, for any book. (In fact, publishers should use that as a blurb. “You never once have to laugh at the pomposities of the French Academies of the eighteenth century!” I’d buy any book that had that on the cover.)
Oh the Glory of It All is a memoir, as those of you who live in the Bay Area may already know; Wilsey was brought up in San Francisco by squillionaire socialites, although after his parents’ divorce, the silver spoon wasn’t as much use as he might have hoped: his mother devoted her time to saving the world, and dragged Sean off around the world to meet the Pope and various scary old-school Kremlin types; meanwhile his dad married a scary old-school stepmother who treated Wilsey like dirt. (Hey, Dede! You may be a bigshot in a little bit of San Francisco, but nobody has ever heard of you here in London! Or anywhere else! I’m sorry, but she got me so steamed up that I had to get back at her somehow.) He got chucked out of every school he attended, and ran away from a creepy establishment which didn’t allow you to utter the names of rock bands out loud.
American lives seem, from this distance at least, very different from European lives. Look at this: Sean Wilsey’s mother was the daughter of an itinerant preacher. She ran away to Dallas to be a model, an escape funded initially by the nickels from her uncle’s jukeboxes and peanut machines. She was dragged off to California by her angry family, and while waitressing there she met a U.S. Air Force major who married her on a live national radio programme called The Bride and Groom. She split from the major, dated Frank Sinatra for a while, married a couple of other guys—one marriage lasted six months; the other, to the trial lawyer who defended Jack Ruby, lasted three weeks. She got a TV job and she had a fan club. And then she married Sean’s dad. We don’t do any of that here. We don’t have itinerant preachers, or peanut machines, or Sinatra. We are born in, for example, Basingstoke, and then we either stay there, or we move to London. That’s probably why we don’t write many memoirs.
Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name is a memoir, too, although it’s not the peculiarities of his life that Tyson is writing about, but the point at which his experiences intersect with recent American history. Tyson was brought up in Oxford, North Carolina, where his father was the pastor of the Methodist church; in 1970, Robert Teel, the father of one of Tyson’s friends, and a couple of other white thugs murdered a young black man, and after the contemptible trial, wherein everyone was found not guilty of every-thing, there was a race riot, and great chunks of Oxford got torched. Young Tim Tyson grew up to be a professor of Afro-American studies, and Blood Done Sign My Name is a perfect reflection of who he is now and where he came from: it’s both memoir and social history, and it’s riveting. Tyson has a deceptively folksy prose style that leads you to suspect that his book will in part be about the triumph of Civil Rights hope over bitter Southern experience, but it ends with a coda, a visit to a club in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1992 to see Percy Sledge: Tyson’s black friend is denied admission. Yes, 1992.Yes, Percy Sledge, the soul singer.
Blood Done Sign My Name is uncompromisingly tough minded, righteous, and instructive (there is a terrific section unraveling the taboo that surrounded black men sleeping with white women), and it’s not about people singing “We Shall Overcome” and holding hands until black and white live together in perfect harmony. On the contrary, Tyson is very good on how the history of the Civil Rights movement is being rewritten daily until it begins to look like the triumph of liberal good sense over prejudice; nothing would have happened, he argues, without things being set on fire. “If you want to read only one book to understand the uniquely American struggle for racial equality and the swirls of emotion around it, this is it,” says one of the reviews on the back of the book. Well, I have read only one book about the uniquely American struggle for racial equality, and this was it. But I will read another one one day soon: it would seem strange, and perhaps a little perverse, to allow a white man to provide my entire Civil Rights education. I mean no offense to the author of this memorable book, but he’d be the first to admit that Afro-Americans might have something of interest to say on the subject.
I moved house this month and have bought no books at all for the first time since I became a Believer. I have spent hour after hour finding homes for unread novels, biographies, memoirs, and collections of essays, poetry, and letters, and suddenly I can see as never be-fore that we’re fine for books at the moment, thanks very much. I came across quite a few of the things that have appeared in the Books Bought column at the top of these pages, and marvelled at my own lack of self-knowledge. When exactly was I going to read Michael B. Oren’s no doubt excellent book about the Six-Day War? Or Dylan Thomas’s letters? The ways in which a man can kid himself are many and various. Anyway, the football season has restarted, which always reduces book time. Arsenal bought only one player over the summer and sold their captain, so we’ve got a perilously thin squad, and Chelsea have spent squillions again, and…The truth is, I’m too worried to begin Hilary Spurling’s apparently magnificent biography of Matisse (bought about five years ago, new, in hardback, because I couldn’t wait). I won’t even be able to think about picking it up until Wenger brings in a new central midfield player. And at the time of writing, there’s no sign of that.